Language for action: Motor resonance during the processing of human and robotic voices

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In this fMRI study we evaluated whether the auditory processing of action verbs pronounced by a human or a robotic voice in the imperative mood differently modulates the activation of the mirror neuron system (MNs). The study produced three results. First, the activation pattern found during listening to action verbs was very similar in both the robot and human conditions. Second, the processing of action verbs compared to abstract verbs determined the activation of the fronto-parietal circuit classically involved during the action goal understanding. Third, and most importantly, listening to action verbs compared to abstract verbs produced activation of the anterior part of the supramarginal gyrus (aSMG) regardless of the condition (human and robot) and in the absence of any object name. The supramarginal gyrus is a region considered to underpin hand-object interaction and associated to the processing of affordances. These results suggest that listening to action verbs may trigger the recruitment of motor representations characterizing affordances and action execution, coherently with the predictive nature of motor simulation that not only allows us to re-enact motor knowledge to understand others’ actions but also prepares us for the actions we might need to carry out.

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