Abstract

Facial expressions and hand gestures are utilized in nonverbal communication to convey socially relevant information. One key process that mediates nonverbal communication is simulation. The mirror neuron system (MNS), which maps observed actions onto the motor representations used when producing those actions, likely plays a role in simulation. Previous neuroimaging experiments have identified a putative human MNS that includes the inferior parietal lobule (IPL) and the frontal operculum. Although understanding nonverbal communication presumably involves the MNS, it is unknown whether these two forms of nonverbal social communication have distinct representations within that system. Here we report the results of a functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment in which participants viewed, imitated, and produced facial expressions and social hand gestures. The observation and execution of facial expressions and social hand gestures activated the MNS, but the magnitude of response differed. Activation in the IPL was greater for social hand gestures, whereas activation in the frontal operculum was greater for viewing facial expressions. The locations of neural activity evoked by viewing facial expressions and social hand gestures in the frontal operculum were significantly different. These data argue that there are distinct representations of different types of social nonverbal communication in the MNS.

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