The discovery of mirror neurons in the macaque brain in the 1990s triggered investigations on putative human mirror neurons and their potential functionality. The leading proposed function has been action understanding: accordingly, we understand the actions of others by simulating them in our own motor system through a direct matching of the visual information to our own motor programs. Furthermore, it has been proposed that this simulation involves the prediction of the sensory consequences of the observed action, similar to the prediction of the sensory consequences of our executed actions. Here, we tested this proposal by quantifying somatosensory attenuation behaviorally during action observation. Somatosensory attenuation manifests during voluntary action and refers to the perception of self-generated touches as less intense than identical externally generated touches because the self-generated touches are predicted from the motor command. Therefore, we reasoned that if an observer simulates the observed action and, thus, he/she predicts its somatosensory consequences, then he/she should attenuate tactile stimuli simultaneously delivered to his/her corresponding body part. In three separate experiments, we found a systematic attenuation of touches during executed self-touch actions, but we found no evidence for attenuation when such actions were observed. Failure to observe somatosensory attenuation during observation of self-touch is not compatible with the hypothesis that the putative human mirror neuron system automatically simulates the observed action. In contrast, our findings emphasize a sharp distinction between the motor representations of self and others.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience