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PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e32517. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032517. Epub 2012 Apr 10.

Dissociating object directed and non-object directed action in the human mirror system; implications for theories of motor simulation.

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Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London, United Kingdom.


Mirror neurons are single cells found in macaque premotor and parietal cortices that are active during action execution and observation. In non-human primates, mirror neurons have only been found in relation to object-directed movements or communicative gestures, as non-object directed actions of the upper limb are not well characterized in non-human primates. Mirror neurons provide important evidence for motor simulation theories of cognition, sometimes referred to as the direct matching hypothesis, which propose that observed actions are mapped onto associated motor schemata in a direct and automatic manner. This study, for the first time, directly compares mirror responses, defined as the overlap between action execution and observation, during object directed and meaningless non-object directed actions. We present functional MRI data that demonstrate a clear dissociation between object directed and non-object directed actions within the human mirror system. A premotor and parietal network was preferentially active during object directed actions, whether observed or executed. Moreover, we report spatially correlated activity across multiple voxels for observation and execution of an object directed action. In contrast to predictions made by motor simulation theory, no similar activity was observed for non-object directed actions. These data demonstrate that object directed and meaningless non-object directed actions are subserved by different neuronal networks and that the human mirror response is significantly greater for object directed actions. These data have important implications for understanding the human mirror system and for simulation theories of motor cognition. Subsequent theories of motor simulation must account for these differences, possibly by acknowledging the role of experience in modulating the mirror response.

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