Evidence for a distributed hierarchy of action representation in the brain

Hum Mov Sci. 2007 Aug;26(4):590-616. doi: 10.1016/j.humov.2007.05.009. Epub 2007 Aug 13.


Complex human behavior is organized around temporally distal outcomes. Behavioral studies based on tasks such as normal prehension, multi-step object use and imitation establish the existence of relative hierarchies of motor control. The retrieval errors in apraxia also support the notion of a hierarchical model for representing action in the brain. In this review, three functional brain imaging studies of action observation using the method of repetition suppression are used to identify a putative neural architecture that supports action understanding at the level of kinematics, object centered goals and ultimately, motor outcomes. These results, based on observation, may match a similar functional-anatomic hierarchy for action planning and execution. If this is true, then the findings support a functional-anatomic model that is distributed across a set of interconnected brain areas that are differentially recruited for different aspects of goal-oriented behavior, rather than a homogeneous mirror neuron system for organizing and understanding all behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apraxias / physiopathology
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Motivation
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Orientation / physiology
  • Parietal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Problem Solving / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Serial Learning / physiology