Understanding the Goals of Everyday Instrumental Actions Is Primarily Linked to Object, Not Motor-Kinematic, Information: Evidence from fMRI

Toby Nicholson* (Corresponding Author), Matt Roser, Patric Bach

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
1 Downloads (Pure)


Prior research conceptualised action understanding primarily as a kinematic matching of observed actions to own motor representations but has ignored the role of object information. The current study utilized fMRI to identify (a) regions uniquely involved in encoding the goal of others' actions, and (b) to test whether these goal understanding processes draw more strongly on regions involved in encoding object semantics or movement kinematics. Participants watched sequences of instrumental actions while attending to either the actions' goal (goal task), the movements performed (movement task) or the objects used (object task). The results confirmed, first, a unique role of the inferior frontal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus and medial frontal gyrus in action goal understanding. Second, they show for the first time that activation in the goal task overlaps directly with object-but not movement-related activation. Moreover, subsequent parametric analyses revealed that movement-related regions become activated only when goals are unclear, or observers have little action experience. In contrast to motor theories of action understanding, these data suggest that objects-rather than movement kinematics-carry the key information about others' actions. Kinematic information is additionally recruited when goals are ambiguous or unfamiliar.

Original languageEnglish
Article number0169700
Number of pages21
JournalPloS ONE
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2017

Cite this