Johansson filmed walkers and runners in a dark room with lights attached to their main joints and demonstrated that such moving light spots were perceived as human movements. To extend this finding the detection and recognition of Johansson displays of different kinds of movements under three light-spot conditions were studied to determine how human actions are perceived on the basis of biological-motion information. Locomotory, instrumental, and social actions were presented in each condition, namely in normal Johansson (light attached to joints), inter-joint (light attached between joints), and upside-down Johansson. Subjects' verbal responses and recognition times were measured. Locomotory actions were recognised better and faster than social and instrumental actions. Furthermore, biological motions were recognised much better and faster when the light-spot displays were presented in the normal orientation rather than upside down. Recognition rate was only slightly impaired under the inter-joint condition. It is argued that the perceptual analysis of actions and movements starts primarily on an intermediate level of action coding and comprises more than just the similarity of movement patterns or simple structures. Additionally, coding of dynamic phase relations and semantic coding take place at very early stages of the processing of biological motion. Implications of these results for computer vision, perceptual models, and mental representations are discussed.