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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

April 2009, Vol. 21, No. 4, Pages 642-653
(doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21049)
© 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Case of Pretense: Observing Actions and Inferring Goals
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When we observe an action, we know almost immediately what goal is pursued by the actor. Strikingly, this applies also to pretend action (pantomime), which provides relevant information about the manipulation itself but not about the manipulated objects. The present fMRI study addressed the issue of goal inference from pretend action as compared with real action. We found differences as well as commonalities for the brain correlates of inferring goals from both types of action. They differed with regard to the weights of the underlying action observation network, indicating the exploitation of object information in the case of real actions and manipulation information in the case of pretense. However, goal inferences from manipulation information resulted in a common network for both real and pretend action. Interestingly, this latter network also comprised areas that are not identified by action observation and that might be due to the processing of scene gist and to the evaluation of fit of putative action goals. These findings suggest that observation of pretense emphasizes the requirement to internally simulate the observed act but rule out fundamental differences of how observers cope with real and pretend action.