Getting a grip on other minds: Mirror neurons, intention understanding, and cognitive empathy
We have previously shown that a right inferior frontal mirror neuron area for grasping responds differently to observed grasping actions embedded in contexts that suggest different intentions, such as drinking and cleaning (Iacoboni, Molnar-Szakacs, Gallese, Buccino, Mazziotta, & Rizzolatti, 2005). Information about intentions, however, may be conveyed also by the grasping action itself: for instance, people typically drink by grasping the handle of a cup with a precision grip. In this fMRI experiment, subjects watched precision grips and whole-hand prehensions embedded in a drinking or an eating context. Indeed, in the right inferior frontal mirror neuron area there was higher activity for observed precision grips in the drinking context. Signal changes in the right inferior frontal mirror neuron area were also significantly correlated with scores on Empathic Concern subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a measure of emotional empathy. These data suggest that human mirror neuron areas use both contextual and grasping type information to predict the intentions of others. They also suggest that mirror neuron activity is strongly linked to social competence.
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