Understanding intentions from actions: Direct perception, inference, and the roles of mirror and mentalizing systems

Conscious Cogn. 2015 Nov;36:426-33. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2015.03.012. Epub 2015 Apr 9.


This review asks whether observers can obtain information about others' intentions from observation of their actions; and if so, whether this process is performed using direct perceptual or inferential processes (prominent examples of each being the intention understanding theory of mirror neuron function, and mentalizing accounts of intention understanding, respectively). I propose four conditions that should be fulfilled in order to support a direct perception account, and suggest that only two of these conditions are supported by the existing data. I then propose and review three further sources of evidence which have the potential to inform this debate, concluding that the data do not support the direct perception account. In particular, mirror neurons may be involved in lower-level processes of action perception, but there is no evidence to support their involvement in the type of higher-level intention understanding that is proposed by the direct perception account.

Keywords: Action observation; Action understanding; Direct perception; Inference; Intention understanding; Intentionality; Kinematics; Mental states; Mentalizing; Mirror neurons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Intention*
  • Mirror Neurons / physiology*
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Social Perception*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*