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What we cannot do ourselves, we cannot understand in others

Successful social communication is based, above all, on the ability to understand the actions of other people. But how can we imagine what other people are thinking, or what intentions they have? Psychologists and neuroscientists trace it back to a kind of simulation that goes on in our brain as soon as we observe a person acting. The actions of the observed person are, so-to-speak, internally imitated. Indeed, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences in Munich, in cooperation with scientists from the University of Bournemouth in England and Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, have shown that we understand the actions of another person, apparently, on the basis of our own "action inventory". In other words, our own mind and body give us the foundation to understand what other people are doing, thinking, or feeling. Evidence for this comes out of an experiment involving two patients that, because of an extremely rare illness, lost the ability to perceive their own body. (Nature Neuroscience, October 2005)

In the recently published study, Simone Bosbach and Wolfgang Prinz showed, with their colleagues, that two specific patients have deficits in their ability to interpret the actions of other people. These two patients are currently the only known cases worldwide with this kind of clinical picture. Its psychological consequences are dramatic. Both patients report that, at the beginning of their illness, most of all, they had the feeling that they had "lost" their entire body. Since then, they have learned to carry out simple body movements. However in order to do that they have to be able to see their body. In the dark, the patients lose complete control over their bodies, because they are no longer able to determine, for example, the position of their arms and legs relative to the body, with the help of the sensory receptor cells in the joints and muscles.

Normal people can do this without any problems, thanks to
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Contact: Dr. Simone Bosbach
bosbach@cbs.mpg.de
44-20-76-79-11-54
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
5-Oct-2005


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