Skip to main content

Viewer perspective in the mirroring of actions


A remarkable capability of the brain’s action representation system is that neurons with ‘mirroring’ properties respond both when an agent (human or monkey) executes an action and also when the agent observes a similar action performed by someone else. Curiously, however, observed actions involve numerous viewer perspectives, whereas execution of actions occur with respect to ‘self’ coordinate space, and the mapping between viewer perspectives is not a known property of the so-called mirror neuron system (MNS). Toward a resolution of this paradox, we demonstrate in humans striking new evidence that key areas defined as part of the MNS of the frontal lobe, directly encode viewer perspective during action observation (Exps 1, 2). What is more, this property applies only to observation of embodied actions and not when disembodied movements of objects are observed (Exp 3). These findings raise the intriguing possibility that the MNS plays a critical role in the formation of action memories.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  • Andersen RA (1995) Encoding of intention and spatial location in the posterior parietal cortex. Cereb Cortex 5:457–469

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Andersen RA, Essick GK, Siegel RM (1985) Encoding of spatial location by posterior parietal neurons. Science 230:456–458

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Badre D, Poldrack RA, Pare-Blagoev EJ, Insler RZ, Wagner AD (2005) Dissociable controlled retrieval and generalized selection mechanisms in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Neuron 47:907–918

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Brignani D, Bortoletto M, Miniussi C, Maioli C (2010) The when and where of spatial storage in memory-guided saccades. Neuroimage 52:1611–1620

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bunge SA, Kahn I, Wallis JD, Miller EK, Wagner AD (2003) Neural circuits subserving the retrieval and maintenance of abstract rules. J Neurophysiol 90:3419–3428

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Caggiano V, Fogassi L, Rizzolatti G, Pomper JK, Thier P, Giese MA, Casile A (2011) View-based encoding of actions in mirror neurons of area F5 in macaque premotor cortex. Curr Biol 21:144–148

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Calvo-Merino B, Grezes J, Glaser DE, Passingham RE, Haggard P (2006) Seeing or doing? Influence of visual and motor familiarity in action observation. Curr Biol 16:1905–1910

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Delorme A, Makeig S (2004) EEGLAB: an open source toolbox for analysis of single-trial EEG dynamics including independent component analysis. J Neurosci Methods 134:9–21

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Franz EA, Miller J (2002) Effects of response readiness on reaction time and force output in people with Parkinson’s disease. Brain 125:1733–1750

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Franz EA, Sebastian A, Hust C, Norris T (2008) Viewer perspective affects central bottleneck requirements in spatial translation tasks. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform 34:398–412

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Grezes J, Armony JL, Rowe J, Passingham RE (2003) Activations related to “mirror” and “canonical” neurones in the human brain: an fMRI study. Neuroimage 18:928–937

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Hauk O, Johnsrude I, Pulvermuller F (2004) Somatotopic representation of action words in human motor and premotor cortex. Neuron 41:301–307

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Hetu S, Mercier C, Eugene F, Michon PE, Jackson PL (2011) Modulation of brain activity during action observation: influence of perspective transitivity and meaningfulness. PLoS One 6:e24728

    PubMed  Article  CAS  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Hintzman DL (1986) Schema abstraction in a multiple-trace memory model. Psychol Rev 93:411–428

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hummel F, Andres F, Altenmuller E, Dichgans J, Gerloff C (2002) Inhibitory control of acquired motor programmes in the human brain. Brain 125:404–420

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Keele SW (1968) Movement control in skilled motor performance. Psychol Bull 70:387–403

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kosslyn SM (1987) Seeing and imagining in the cerebral hemispheres—a computational approach. Psychol Rev 94:148–175

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Macuga KL, Frey SH (2011) Selective responses in right inferior frontal and supramarginal gyri differentiate between observed movements of oneself vs. another. Neuropsychologia 49:1202–1207

    PubMed  Article  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Mognon A, Jovicich J, Bruzzone L, Buiatti M (2011) ADJUST: an automatic EEG artifact detector based on the joint use of spatial and temporal features. Psychophysiology 48:229–240

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Muthukumaraswamy SD, Johnson BW, McNair NA (2004) Mu rhythm modulation during observation of an object-directed grasp. Cogn Brain Res 19:195–201

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Naghavi HR, Nyberg L (2005) Common fronto-parietal activity in attention, memory, and consciousness: shared demands on integration? Conscious Cogn 14:390–425

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Oosterhof NN, Tipper SP, Downing PE (2012) Viewpoint (in)dependence of action representations: an MVPA study. J Cogn Neurosci 24:975–989

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Perry A, Bentin S (2009) Mirror activity in the human brain while observing hand movements: a comparison between EEG desynchronization in the mu-range and previous fMRI results. Brain Res 1282:126–132

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Rizzolatti G, Craighero L (2004) The mirror-neuron system. Annu Rev Neurosci 27:169–192

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Rizzolatti G, Fadiga L, Gallese V, Fogassi L (1996) Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions. Cogn Brain Res 3:131–141

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Simon JR, Rudell AP (1967) Auditory S-R compatibility: the effect of an irrelevant cue on information processing. J Appl Psychol 51:300–304

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Steggemann Y, Engbert K, Weigelt M (2011) Selective effects of motor expertise in mental body rotation tasks: comparing object-based and perspective transformations. Brain Cogn 76:97–105

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thompson-Schill SL, Jonides J, Marshuetz C et al (2002) Effects of frontal lobe damage on interference effects in working memory. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 2:109–120

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We gratefully acknowledge generous funding from a Marsden grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand (to EAF).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yan Fu or Elizabeth A. Franz.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Fu, Y., Franz, E.A. Viewer perspective in the mirroring of actions. Exp Brain Res 232, 3665–3674 (2014).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Action observation
  • Visual perspective
  • ERP
  • Mirror neuron system
  • Motor programme