Neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the understanding and imitation of action

Abstract

What are the neural bases of action understanding? Although this capacity could merely involve visual analysis of the action, it has been argued that we actually map this visual information onto its motor representation in our nervous system. Here we discuss evidence for the existence of a system, the 'mirror system', that seems to serve this mapping function in primates and humans, and explore its implications for the understanding and imitation of action.

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Figure 1: Visual and motor responses of a mirror neuron in area F5.
Figure 2: Visual and motor responses of a mirror neuron in area PF.
Figure 3: Brain activation in frontal and parietal areas during the observation of mouth, hand and foot actions.
Figure 4: Activity of a mirror neuron in F5 in response to action observation in full vision and in hidden conditions.

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MIT ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COGNITIVE SCIENCES

Positron emission tomography

Motor control

Magnetic resonance imaging

Attribution theory

Perception of motion

Theory of mind

Glossary

DOUBLE-PULSE TMS

A variant of the transcranial magnetic stimulation technique, in which two coils are used to generate magnetic fields in quick succession over the same cortical region or in different regions at the same time.

H REFLEX

Also known as the Hoffmann reflex, the H reflex results from the stimulation of sensory fibres, which causes an excitatory potential in the motor neuron pool after a synaptic delay. Exceeding the potential threshold for a given motor neuron generates an action potential. The resulting discharge will cause the muscle fibres innervated by that neurone to be activated.

INTRANSITIVE MOVEMENT

A movement not directed towards an object.

MOEBIUS SYNDROME

A disorder characterized by facial paralysis, attributed to defects in the development of the sixth (abducens) and seventh (facial) cranial nerves.

PHENOMENOLOGY

A philosophical movement founded by the German Edward Husserl, dedicated to describing the structures of experience as they present themselves to consciousness, without recourse to theory, deduction or assumptions from other disciplines, such as the natural sciences.

POINT-LIGHT STIMULI

Stimuli devised by the Swedish psychologist Johannson to study biological motion without interference from shape. Light sources are attached to the joints of people and their movements are recorded in a dark environment.

TRANSCRANIAL MAGNETIC STIMULATION

A technique used to stimulate relatively restricted areas of the human cerebral cortex. It is based on the generation of a strong magnetic field near the area of interest which, if changed rapidly enough, will induce an electric field sufficient to stimulate neurons.

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Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L. & Gallese, V. Neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the understanding and imitation of action. Nat Rev Neurosci 2, 661–670 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35090060

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