Body language in the brain: Constructing meaning from expressive movement

Christine M. Tipper, Giulia Signorini, Scott T. Grafton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This fMRI study investigated neural systems that interpret body language—the meaningful emotive expressions conveyed by body movement. Participants watched videos of performers engaged in modern dance or pantomime that conveyed specific themes such as hope, agony, lust, or exhaustion. We tested whether the meaning of an affectively laden performance was decoded in localized brain substrates as a distinct property of action separable from other superficial features, such as choreography, kinematics, performer, and low-level visual stimuli. A repetition suppression (RS) procedure was used to identify brain regions that decoded the meaningful affective state of a performer, as evidenced by decreased activity when emotive themes were repeated in successive performances. Because the theme was the only feature repeated across video clips that were otherwise entirely different, the occurrence of RS identified brain substrates that differentially coded the specific meaning of expressive performances. RS was observed bilaterally, extending anteriorly along middle and superior temporal gyri into temporal pole, medially into insula, rostrally into inferior orbitofrontal cortex, and caudally into hippocampus and amygdala. Behavioral data on a separate task indicated that interpreting themes from modern dance was more difficult than interpreting pantomime; a result that was also reflected in the fMRI data. There was greater RS in left hemisphere, suggesting that the more abstract metaphors used to express themes in dance compared to pantomime posed a greater challenge to brain substrates directly involved in decoding those themes. We propose that the meaning-sensitive temporal-orbitofrontal regions observed here comprise a superordinate functional module of a known hierarchical action observation network (AON), which is critical to the construction of meaning from expressive movement. The findings are discussed with respect to a predictive coding model of action understanding.

Original languageEnglish
Article number450
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue numberAUGUST
Publication statusPublished - Aug 21 2015


  • Action observation
  • Dance
  • fMRI
  • Predictive coding
  • Repetition suppression
  • Social neuroscience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Neurology
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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