In research published in PLoS Biology, scientists led by Marco Iacoboni discovered that the brain’s “mirror neurons” are active when we are trying to work out other people’s thoughts and intentions.
‘Mirror neurons’ are a set of cells in the frontal lobe of the brain, named because as well as being active when we execute actions, they are also active when we observe the actions of someone else.
Iacoboni and his colleagues asked participants to watch various movie clips of actions and related scenes in a fMRI scanner. In their analysis, they contrasted the brain activity from actions where their was an obvious intention (like picking up a sandwich) with actions where no obvious intention was implied.
They discovered that part of the activity in the ‘mirror neuron’ system was specifically related to perceiving intentions, rather than watching actions in general.
The ability to understand other people’s intentions is known as “theory of mind” and is considered one of the building blocks of social interaction. This is the first study to show how the ‘mirror neuron’ system may be involved in reading others’ intentions and desires, and is an important step in understanding how the brain supports social functioning.
This is part of an increasingly popular area of science known as social cognitive neuroscience, which aims to understand the psychology and neuroscience of person-to-person interaction.
Synopsis of study, and a news story discussing it.
Full text of the study from PLoS Biology.