Thinking about action

I participated in a collaboration between artists and scientists organized by Pavlov E-lab in 2012. The team consisted of Professor of Neuromechanics and Prosthetics Bert Otten,  PhD student in Cognitive Neuroscience Barbara Nordhjem, filmmaker Dinanda Luttikhedde from Peergroup, visual artist Michael Horsham from the design collective Tomato, and mediaartist and composer Jan Klug. 

Here are some notes I made about the link between cognition and action.

According to the classical ideomotor theory by William James (1890), action control relies on anticipation of the movement performed. The term comes from ‘ideo’ (idea) and ‘motor’. Once the effect of an action has been learned, one just has to think about the intended outcome to produce the action. So for instance, playing the piano is mediated by thinking about the effects of the finger movements (Kunde, Koch, & Hoffmann, 2004).

Cause and consequence A more recent version of the ideomotor action theory is the common-coding (Prinz, 1997).According to this theory, actions are represented in terms of their effects, and both perceived events and planned actions are represented in a common cognitive domain. When learning an action, a bidirectional relationship between action and consequence is formed. Again think about the pianoplayer: perceptual representations (e.g. a key) and motor representations (e.g. hand action for hitting that key) are coded by the same neurons.

Ownership of actions In some cases one can move without consciously intending to. Pendulums and the Quija board are often set in motion without one being aware of making the movements: this is called the ideomotor effect. The same idea can be extended to reflexes such salivation when imagining food (or Pavlov’s dog hearing the bell associated with food). In some alternative therapies, ideomotor effects are seen as a way to connect to the subconscious mind.

Quija board

Mirror neurons Research investigating the neural mechanisms involved in performing and observing movements has over the last years been sparked by the discovery of mirror neurons (Iacoboni & Dapretto, 2006). Mirror neurons both respond when you perform an action and when you observe someone else doing the same action. Mirror neurons were first discovered with single cell recordings in monkeys. Later, imaging studies with humans also shows similar areas of activation when an action is performed and observed (Keysers & Gazzola, 2006). Mirror neurons in humans also respond based on the believed intention of the person observed: there are differences in activation for the same movement done with different intentions, like grabbing a cup of coffee or cleaning spilled coffee.

Difference in brain activation when observing the situation on picture to the left and the right

Connected minds The finding of mirror neurons suggest that motor actions performed by oneself and by others share the same neural representation.The interesting thing about these neurons is that we might be more connected to other people than we tend to think. When you look at people moving around you, those movements also resonate where your brain represents your own body. In other words, mirror neurons challenge the idea of the individual mind as a unity enclosed in the skull and separated from the surroundings. It is possible that actions are encoded in an agent neutral way, and that attribution of action ownership is performed by a separate system (Jeannerod, 2004).

Restriction of movement Restrictions of your own ability to move also has an effect on how you see other people. When facial expressions are restricted (typically by letting participants bite on a pen), people become less able to recognize emotions expressed by others (Niedenthal et al., 2001; Oberman, Winkielman, & Ramachandran, 2007).

Niedenthal, P. M., Winkielman, P., Mondillon, L., & Vermeulen, N. (2009). Embodiment of emotion concepts.


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