Seeing or Doing? Influence of Visual and Motor Familiarity in Action Observation

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The human brain contains specialized circuits for observing and understanding actions [1-3]. Previous studies have not distinguished whether this "mirror system" uses specialized motor representations or general processes of visual inference and knowledge to understand observed actions [4]. We report the first neuroimaging study to distinguish between these alternatives. Purely motoric influences on perception have been shown behaviorally [5], but their neural bases are unknown. We used fMRI to reveal the neural bases of motor influences on action observation. We controlled for visual and knowledge effects by studying expert dancers. Some ballet moves are performed by only one gender. However, male and female dancers train together and have equal visual familiarity with all moves. Male and female dancers viewed videos of gender-specific male and female ballet moves. We found greater premotor, parietal, and cerebellar activity when dancers viewed moves from their own motor repertoire, compared to opposite-gender moves that they frequently saw but did not perform. Our results show that mirror circuits have a purely motor response over and above visual representations of action. We understand actions not only by visual recognition, but also motorically. In addition, we confirm that the cerebellum is part of the action observation network. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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Calvo-Merino, B., Grèzes, J., Glaser, D. E., Passingham, R. E., & Haggard, P. (2006). Seeing or Doing? Influence of Visual and Motor Familiarity in Action Observation. Current Biology, 16(19), 1905–1910.

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