PET was used to map brain regions that are associated with the observation of meaningful and meaningless hand actions. Subjects were scanned under four conditions which consisted of visually presented actions. In each of the four experimental conditions, they were instructed to watch the actions with one of two aims: to be able to recognize or to imitate them later. We found that differences in the meaning of the action, irrespective of the strategy used during observation, lead to different patterns of brain activity and clear left/right asymmetries. Meaningful actions strongly engaged the left hemisphere in frontal and temporal regions while meaningless actions involved mainly the right occipitoparietal pathway. Observing with the intent to recognize activated memory-encoding structures. In contrast, observation with the intent to imitate was associated with activation in the regions involved in the planning and in the generation of actions. Thus, the pattern of brain activation during observation of actions is dependent both on the nature of the required executive processing and the type of the extrinsic properties of the action presented.
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