How do humans interact with tools? Gibson (1979) suggested that humans perceive directly what tools afford in terms of meaningful actions. This "affordances" hypothesis implies that visual objects can potentiate motor responses even in the absence of an intention to act. Here we explore the temporal evolution of motor plans afforded by common objects. We presented objects that have a strong significance for action (pinching and grasping) and objects with no such significance. Two experimental tasks involved participants viewing objects presented on a computer screen. For the first task, they were instructed to respond rapidly to changes in background colour by using an apparatus mimicking precision and power grip responses. For the second task, they received stimulation of their primary motor cortex using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) while passively viewing the objects. Muscular responses (motor evoked potentials: MEPs) were recorded from two intrinsic hand muscles (associated with either a precision or power grip). The data showed an interaction between type of response (or muscle) and type of object, with both reaction time and MEP measures implying the generation of a congruent motor plan in the period immediately after object presentation. The results provide further support for the notion that the physical properties of objects automatically activate specific motor codes, but also demonstrate that this influence is rapid and relatively short lived.
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