Effector- and target-independent representation of observed actions: evidence from incidental repetition priming

  • Marcello Costantini
  • Giorgia Committeri
  • Gaspare Galati
Research Article


Simulation mechanisms are thought to play an important role in action recognition. On this view, actions are represented through the re-enactment of the observed action. Mirror neurons are thought to be the neuronal counterpart of such a process, and code actions at a rather abstract level, often generalizing across sensory modalities and effectors. In humans, attention has been focussed on the somatotopic, effector dependent representation of observed actions in the mirror system. In this series of behavioural studies, we used incidental repetition priming to determine to which degree the cognitive representation of observed actions relies on effector- and target-dependent representations. Participants were presented with images depicting meaningless or meaningful actions and pressed a button only when presented with a meaningful action. Images were classified as depicting a repeated or new action, relative to the previous image in the trial series. In the first experiment, we demonstrate a priming effect based on the repetition of an action, performed by the same effector over the same target object. In the second experiment, we demonstrate that this facilitation holds even when the same action is performed over a different target object. Finally, in the third experiment we show that the action priming effect holds even when the same action is accomplished with different effectors. These results suggest the existence of a cognitive representation of actions, automatically activated during observation, which is abstract enough to generalize across different targets for that action and different effectors performing that action.


Effector-independent Action observation Action representation Mirror neurons Repetition priming 



We are grateful to Francesca Defeudis and Antonello Baldassarre for their help in collecting and analyzing data, and to Bernhard Hommel for his comments on a previous version of this manuscript.

Supplementary material

Meaningful actions used in experiments 1 and 3. (TIFF 1341 kb)
Meaningless actions used in all the experiments. (TIFF 603 kb)
Meaningful actions used in experiment 2. (TIFF 1347 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marcello Costantini
    • 1
    • 2
    • 5
  • Giorgia Committeri
    • 1
    • 2
  • Gaspare Galati
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Laboratory of Neuropsychology, Department of Clinical Sciences and Bio-imagingUniversity G. d’AnnunzioChieti, PescaraItaly
  2. 2.Institute for Advanced Biomedical Technologies, Foundation University G. d’AnnunzioChietiItaly
  3. 3.Department of PsychologySapienza UniversityRomeItaly
  4. 4.Neuroimaging Laboratory, Foundation Santa LuciaRomeItaly
  5. 5.Department of Clinical Sciences and Bio-imagingUniversity of ChietiChietiItaly

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