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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008 Dec;1145:100-12. doi: 10.1196/annals.1416.023.

Signed language and human action processing: evidence for functional constraints on the human mirror-neuron system.

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University of California Davis, Davis, CA, USA.


In the quest to further understand the neural underpinning of human communication, researchers have turned to studies of naturally occurring signed languages used in Deaf communities. The comparison of the commonalities and differences between spoken and signed languages provides an opportunity to determine core neural systems responsible for linguistic communication independent of the modality in which a language is expressed. The present article examines such studies, and in addition asks what we can learn about human languages by contrasting formal visual-gestural linguistic systems (signed languages) with more general human action perception. To understand visual language perception, it is important to distinguish the demands of general human motion processing from the highly task-dependent demands associated with extracting linguistic meaning from arbitrary, conventionalized gestures. This endeavor is particularly important because theorists have suggested close homologies between perception and production of actions and functions of human language and social communication. We review recent behavioral, functional imaging, and neuropsychological studies that explore dissociations between the processing of human actions and signed languages. These data suggest incomplete overlap between the mirror-neuron systems proposed to mediate human action and language.

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