Motor mapping of implied actions during perception of emotional body language

  • Sara Borgomaneri
    Centro studi e ricerche in Neuroscienze Cognitive, Polo Scientifico-didattico di Cesena, Cesena, Italy

    Istituto di Ricovero e Cura a Carattere Scientifico Fondazione Santa Lucia, Roma, Italy

    Department of Neuroscience, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
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  • Valeria Gazzola
    Department of Neuroscience, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands

    Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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  • Alessio Avenanti
    Corresponding author.
    Centro studi e ricerche in Neuroscienze Cognitive, Polo Scientifico-didattico di Cesena, Cesena, Italy

    Istituto di Ricovero e Cura a Carattere Scientifico Fondazione Santa Lucia, Roma, Italy

    Department of Psychology, University of Bologna Alma Mater Studiorum, Bologna, Italy
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Published:April 05, 2012DOI:



      Perceiving and understanding emotional cues is critical for survival. Using the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) previous TMS studies have found that watching humans in emotional pictures increases motor excitability relative to seeing landscapes or household objects, suggesting that emotional cues may prime the body for action.


      Here we tested whether motor facilitation to emotional pictures may reflect the simulation of the human motor behavior implied in the pictures occurring independently of its emotional valence.


      Motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) to single-pulse TMS of the left motor cortex were recorded from hand muscles during observation and categorization of emotional and neutral pictures. In experiment 1 participants watched neutral, positive and negative IAPS stimuli, while in experiment 2, they watched pictures depicting human emotional (joyful, fearful), neutral body movements and neutral static postures.


      Experiment 1 confirms the increase in excitability for emotional IAPS stimuli found in previous research and shows, however, that more implied motion is perceived in emotional relative to neutral scenes. Experiment 2 shows that motor excitability and implied motion scores for emotional and neutral body actions were comparable and greater than for static body postures.


      In keeping with embodied simulation theories, motor response to emotional pictures may reflect the simulation of the action implied in the emotional scenes. Action simulation may occur independently of whether the observed implied action carries emotional or neutral meanings. Our study suggests the need of controlling implied motion when exploring motor response to emotional pictures of humans.


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