‘From the perception of action to the understanding of intention’: a decade-old review of brain studies

I just found an old article I had printed many moons ago because I thought the title interesting. Dealing with brain research, as it does, this review is obviously in the ‘dated’ pile nowadays, but still interesting – and perhaps useful as a reference to search off. It also makes me wonder what stories – and particularly visual story formats – offer children in terms of learning to interpret intention/emotion/etc. in others?

… here are some interesting statements from this article:

ABSTRACT: “Humans have an inherent tendency to infer other people’s intentions from their actions. Here we review psychosocial and functional neuroimaging evidence that biological motion is processed as a special category, from which we automatically infer mental states such as intention. The mechanism underlying the attribution of intentions to actions might rely on simulating the observed action and mapping it onto representations of our own intentions. There is accumulating neurophysiological evidence to support a role for action simulation in the brain.” (p.561)

“SIMULATION THEORY
An account by philosophers of mind, which maintains that one represents the mental activities and processes of others by simulation; that is, by generating similar activities and processes in oneself (see REF […Gordon, RM in Mind and Morals: Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science (eds. May L Friedman, M & Clark, A) 165-180 (MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1996)]).” (p.561)

“The visual perception of motion is a particularly crucial source of sensory input. It is essential to be able to pick out the motion of biological forms from other types of motion in the natural environment in order to predict the actions of other individuals. An animal’s survival depends on its ability to identify the movements of prey, predators and mates, and to predict their future actions, the consequences of which are radically different and could in some cases be fatal. As social animals, humans behave largely on the basis of their interpretations of and predictions about the actions of others.” (p.561)

“Humans have an inherent ability to understand other people’s mind. This process is a component of a ‘theory of mind,’ a well-researched topic in both developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Theory-of-mind research and theory has mainly been applied to high-level cognitive processing, such as understanding that other people can have different desires and beliefs from one’s own. …psychosphysical and functional imaging studies show… that biological motion is processed as a special category, to which humans from an early age attribute mental states, such as intention.” (p.561)

“By simulating another person’s actions and mapping them onto stored representations of our own motor commands and their consequences, which are stored in the cerebellum, it might be possible to estimate the observed person’s internal states, which cannot be read directly from their movements. This simulating system could also provide information from which predictions about the person’s future actions could be made. This is a new framework for an idea reminiscent of the philosophical concept that we understand people’s minds by covertly simulating their behaviour. There is accumulating neurophysiological evidence to support a role for action simulation in the brain.” (p.565)

“Several cognitive and developmental psychologists have postulated a common coding for actions performed by [-p.566] the self and by another person – also referred to as ‘simulation’, ‘resonance behaviour’ and ‘shared representations’. In recent years, interest in these concepts has been revived by the neurophysiological discovery of ‘mirror’ neurons in the monkey ventral premotor cortex, which discharge, both when the monkey performs specific goal-directed hand movements and when it observes another individual performing the same movements.” (pp.565-566)

“A natural link between action observation and generation is provided by motor imitation. The finding that very young babies can imitate facial gestures indicates an innate, or early developing, system for coupling the perception and production of human actions. Research on neonatal imitation has emphasized its role in non-verbal communication, and indicates that it provides a link between actions and mental states.” (p.566)

Conclusion
The psychosocial and neurophysiological studies that we have reviewed support the idea that the brain is a powerful simulating machine, designed to detect biological motion in order to extract intentions from the motion and to predict the future actions of other animate beings. In the future, it would be interesting to design experiments that directly evaluate unanswered questions regarding the relationship between one’s own intentions and those of others. For example, to what extent, and at what level, is there a real overlap between representations of our own intentions and the intentions of others? How does the brain distinguish between these representations? What is the nature of the mechanisms by which the observation of actions allows us to read intentions? That is, how can the respective contribution of bottom-up and top-down processes in the attribution of intentions to biological motion be disentangled?” (p.566) NOTE: it is now well possible that these questions have been addressed by subsequent studies….

Ref: Sarah-Jane Blakemore and Jean Decety (2001) From the perception of action to the understanding of intention Nature Reviews: Neuroscience 2(August): pp561-567  [www.nature.com/reviews/neuro]

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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