Abstract

Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to assess the cortical areas active during the observation of mouth actions performed by humans and by individuals belonging to other species (monkey and dog). Two types of actions were presented: biting and oral communicative actions (speech reading, lip-smacking, barking). As a control, static images of the same actions were shown. Observation of biting, regardless of the species of the individual performing the action, determined two activation foci (one rostral and one caudal) in the inferior parietal lobule and an activation of the pars opercularis of the inferior frontal gyrus and the adjacent ventral premotor cortex. The left rostral parietal focus (possibly BA 40) and the left premotor focus were very similar in all three conditions, while the right side foci were stronger during the observation of actions made by conspecifics. The observation of speech reading activated the left pars opercularis of the inferior frontal gyrus, the observation of lip-smacking activated a small focus in the pars opercularis bilaterally, and the observation of barking did not produce any activation in the frontal lobe. Observation of all types of mouth actions induced activation of extrastriate occipital areas. These results suggest that actions made by other individuals may be recognized through different mechanisms. Actions belonging to the motor repertoire of the observer (e.g., biting and speech reading) are mapped on the observer's motor system. Actions that do not belong to this repertoire (e.g., barking) are essentially recognized based on their visual properties. We propose that when the motor representation of the observed action is activated, the observer gains knowledge of the observed action in a “personal” perspective, while this perspective is lacking when there is no motor activation.

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