Biological Cybernetics

, Volume 104, Issue 1–2, pp 137–160 | Cite as

Action understanding and active inference

Original Paper


We have suggested that the mirror-neuron system might be usefully understood as implementing Bayes-optimal perception of actions emitted by oneself or others. To substantiate this claim, we present neuronal simulations that show the same representations can prescribe motor behavior and encode motor intentions during action–observation. These simulations are based on the free-energy formulation of active inference, which is formally related to predictive coding. In this scheme, (generalised) states of the world are represented as trajectories. When these states include motor trajectories they implicitly entail intentions (future motor states). Optimizing the representation of these intentions enables predictive coding in a prospective sense. Crucially, the same generative models used to make predictions can be deployed to predict the actions of self or others by simply changing the bias or precision (i.e. attention) afforded to proprioceptive signals. We illustrate these points using simulations of handwriting to illustrate neuronally plausible generation and recognition of itinerant (wandering) motor trajectories. We then use the same simulations to produce synthetic electrophysiological responses to violations of intentional expectations. Our results affirm that a Bayes-optimal approach provides a principled framework, which accommodates current thinking about the mirror-neuron system. Furthermore, it endorses the general formulation of action as active inference.


Action–observation Mirror-neuron system Inference Precision Free-energy Perception Generative models Predictive coding 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Karl Friston
    • 1
  • Jérémie Mattout
    • 1
    • 2
  • James Kilner
    • 1
  1. 1.The Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, Institute of NeurologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.InsermLyonFrance

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