Action understanding and learning are suggested to be mediated, at least in part, by the human mirror neuron system (hMNS). Static images as well as videos of actions with the outcome occluded have been shown to activate the hMNS. However, whether the hMNS preferentially responds to end or means of an action remains to be investigated. We, therefore, presented subjects with videos of intentional actions that were shown from two perspectives (factor 1, perspective: first vs. third person) while subjects directed their attention to the means or the end thereof (factor 2, task: means vs. end). End- or means-related changes in BOLD signal and corticospinal excitability (CSE) were assessed using fMRI and TMS, respectively. Judging the means of an action compared with its end differentially activated bilateral ventral premotor (vPMC) and inferior parietal cortex (IPL), that is, the core regions of the hMNS. The reverse contrast revealed left precuneus and bilateral superior frontal, angular, and middle temporal gyrus activity. In accordance, the two tasks, although identically in stimulus properties, modulated CSE differentially. Although recent studies suggest that the hMNS may prefer the presence of a goal or context, our data show that within the same context, it responds preferentially when attention is directed to the action means. Consequently, in addition to inferring action goals, a key function of the hMNS may be to anticipate the trajectories and dynamics of observed actions, which is a prerequisite for any timely interaction.

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