Talk on 4 January (4pm, AS-4, 02-06) by Emily Cross and Richard Ramsey on “Understanding others’ actions: Evidence from fMRI”


There will be a departmental talk next Tuesday on 4 Jan (4pm) by Emily Cross and Richard Ramsey. More details are appended below.

Title: Understanding others’ actions: Evidence from fMRI

Date/Time: 4 January 2011 (Tuesday), 4pm

Venue: AS-4, 02-06

How do we understand other people’s actions? A dominant view holds that action understanding occurs via a direct matching process that automatically maps observed actions onto one’s own motor system. It has been further argued that the neural basis of this direct matching mechanism is the human ‘mirror neuron system’, comprising inferior frontal and parietal cortices of the human brain. In the current talk, we examine this proposal in three ways. First, we explore the idea that that brain regions beyond of the mirror system are involved during action understanding in social contexts. We show that brain regions that process faces and bodies are sensitive actors’ physical identities, whereas the mentalizing (Theory of Mind) network distinguishes between actions that would achieve their goal or not. Next, we argue that the mirror system’s functions extend well beyond direct matching. In support of this, we show that the mirror system responds to the goals of simple geometrical shapes, which have no human form or motion. This result is corroborated by another study where we find mirror system hyperactivation to rigid, robot-like motion compared to natural human-like motion. These findings demonstrate that the mirror system is sensitive to goals in the absence of human form or motion cues that could be easily mapped onto one’s body, and that mirror regions may also perform a predictive or compensatory function in action cognition when perceiving actions that we have little physical experience performing. With a final study, we explore the relationship between mirror system activity, aesthetic evaluation, and observers’ physical abilities while watching dance. Here we see preliminary evidence that aesthetic evaluation can have more of an impact on mirror system function than one’s physical abilities. In summary, we suggest that direct matching theories of action understanding and the mirror system need revision for two reasons: 1) an extended brain network is required for understanding other people’s actions in social settings, which extends beyond the mirror neuron system; 2) the mirror system does not always respond preferentially to actions that are in one’s own motor repertoire; it is also sensitive to non-human agents and actions, and actions we find pleasing to watch.

About the speakers:
Dr. Ramsey is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is currently using behavioural and brain imaging techniques to investigate the neural processes underlying a range of social behaviours. His interests focus on how and where the brain encodes our ability to understand the actions and mental states of other people.
Dr. Cross is an assistant professor at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, affiliated with the Behavioural Science Institute and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. Before arriving in the Netherlands, Dr. Cross completed degrees in the USA and New Zealand, and worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the UK and Germany. Her research falls under the broad domain of social cognitive neuroscience, focusing on questions of action learning, expertise, agent perception, and neuroaesthetics.

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