Observers were scanned while they watched a video of an actor using an object. Three conditions were contrasted in which the same object was used: (i) normally (e.g. using a tennis racket to hit a ball), (ii) in an unusual way (e.g. using a tennis racket to strain spaghetti), (iii) in a pretend play (e.g. playing a tennis racket like a banjo). Observing real and unusual uses of objects activated areas previously seen in studies of tool use including areas associated with a mirror system for action. Observing pretend play activated additional areas previously associated with theory of mind tasks and listening to narrative, including medial prefrontal cortex, posterior superior temporal sulcus and temporal poles. After presentation of each video, observers were asked to name the object as used in the preceding action video (e.g. racket, sieve or banjo). Naming the pretend object elicited activity in medial prefrontal cortex. These results are consistent with proposals that pretend play is a form of communicative narrative, associated with the ability to mentalize. However, this leaves open the question as to whether pretence or mentalizing is the more basic process.
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