Understanding the intentions of others while watching their actions is a fundamental building block of social behavior. The neural and functional mechanisms underlying this ability are still poorly understood. To investigate these mechanisms we used functional magnetic resonance imaging. Twenty-three subjects watched three kinds of stimuli: grasping hand actions without a context, context only (scenes containing objects), and grasping hand actions performed in two different contexts. In the latter condition the context suggested the intention associated with the grasping action (either drinking or cleaning). Actions embedded in contexts, compared with the other two conditions, yielded a significant signal increase in the posterior part of the inferior frontal gyrus and the adjacent sector of the ventral premotor cortex where hand actions are represented. Thus, premotor mirror neuron areas-areas active during the execution and the observation of an action-previously thought to be involved only in action recognition are actually also involved in understanding the intentions of others. To ascribe an intention is to infer a forthcoming new goal, and this is an operation that the motor system does automatically.
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