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Curr Biol. 2008 Mar 25;18(6):454-7. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.02.057.

Complementary systems for understanding action intentions.

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F.C. Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging, Radboud University, NL-6500 HB, Nijmegen, Netherlands.


How humans understand the intention of others' actions remains controversial. Some authors have suggested that intentions are recognized by means of a motor simulation of the observed action with the mirror-neuron system [1-3]. Others emphasize that intention recognition is an inferential process, often called "mentalizing" or employing a "theory of mind," which activates areas well outside the motor system [4-6]. Here, we assessed the contribution of brain regions involved in motor simulation and mentalizing for understanding action intentions via functional brain imaging. Results show that the inferior frontal gyrus (part of the mirror-neuron system) processes the intentionality of an observed action on the basis of the visual properties of the action, irrespective of whether the subject paid attention to the intention or not. Conversely, brain areas that are part of a "mentalizing" network become active when subjects reflect about the intentionality of an observed action, but they are largely insensitive to the visual properties of the observed action. This supports the hypothesis that motor simulation and mentalizing have distinct but complementary functions for the recognition of others' intentions.

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