Objectives: The results of neuroimaging studies have indicated that viewing emotional stimuli can lead to activity increases in brain regions associated with processing actions. We hypothesized that observation of actions involving the potential for harm (i.e., risk-taking actions) would activate emotion- and pain-related processing.
Methods: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the changes in neural activity during the observation of safe and risk-taking actions in 34 healthy participants (14 females, 20 males; mean age: 23·4±3·7 years).
Results: Observation of risk-taking actions elicited significantly stronger neural activation in the inferior frontal gyrus, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, superior frontal gyrus/frontal pole, inferior parietal lobule, middle temporal gyrus, middle occipital gyrus, lingual gyrus, cuneus (including the calcarine sulcus), insula, and amygdala, than observation of safe actions. Interestingly, we observed significant activation of affect-related brain areas (ventromedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and insula), thought to be implicated in various aspects of emotion regulation during the observation of risk-taking actions. No brain regions exhibited greater activation during observation of safe actions than during observation of risk-taking actions associated with risk.
Discussion: Our results reveal that the risk-related content of the observed actions in the video clips elicited activation of a network of visual input and processing regions, including the action observation network, that appears to encode the meanings of observed actions as well as the reflective or retrospective monitoring of their outcomes. These findings suggest that risk-taking situations may increase cognitive load on the entire action perception system, and may command more attention.