It's an insight that could have significant implications for the assessment of people with various movement disorders such as some stroke victims, says Dr. Randy Flanagan, who conducted the study with Dr. Roland Johansson of Umea University in Sweden.
The methods employed in the study could be used to determine whether people with impaired movement control also have problems understanding and perceiving the actions of others. The answer to this question will have implications for both diagnosis and assessment.
"This helps to explain how we understand the movements of others," Dr. Flanagan says. "We perceive an action by running it at some covert level in our own system. An example would be when sports fans watch football on TV and move in anticipation of action on the screen."
Although this theory is supported by previous neuro-physiological and brain imaging studies, until now there has been little direct, behavioural evidence.
Dr. Flanagan's findings are published this week in the current edition of Nature.
The study builds on earlier findings by other researchers showing that some brain cells fire not only when picking up an object, but also when watching an experimenter do the same thing. Rather than mere imitation, Dr. Flanagan believed that such neural activity was a way of understanding the action in anticipation of performing it.
The current Queen's study uses human subjects to examine patterns of eye-hand coordination when performing and observing a simple block-stacking task. The researchers discovered that, both in watching and performing the task, people's gaze pattern is the same.