When you see someone reach into a cookie jar, their goal remains obvious even if you know that the last cookie has already been eaten. Thus, it is possible to infer the goal of an action even if you know that the goal cannot be achieved. Previous research has identified distinct brain networks for processing information about object locations, actions and mental-state inferences. However, the relationship between brain networks for action understanding in social contexts remains unclear. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, this study assesses the role of these networks in understanding another person searching for hidden objects. Participants watched movie clips depicting a toy animal hiding and an actor, who was ignorant of the hiding place, searching in the filled or empty location. When the toy animal hid in the same location repeatedly, the blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response was suppressed in occipital, posterior temporal and posterior parietal brain regions, consistent with processing object properties and spatial attention. When the actor searched in the same location repeatedly, the BOLD signal was suppressed in the inferior frontal gyrus, consistent with the observation of hand actions. In contrast, searches towards the filled location compared to the empty location were associated with a greater response in the medial prefrontal cortex and right temporal pole, which are both associated with mental state inference. These findings show that when observing another person search for a hidden object, brain networks for processing information about object properties, actions and mental state inferences work together in a complementary fashion. This supports the hypothesis that brain regions within and beyond the putative human mirror neuron system are involved in action comprehension within social contexts.
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- mirror neuron system
- action observation
- social cognition