Temporal hierarchy of observed goal-directed actions

Shahar Aberbach-Goodman, Roy Mukamel*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


During social interactions, we continuously integrate current and previous information over varying timescales to infer other people's action intentions. Motor cognition theories argue for a hierarchical organization of goal-directed actions based on temporal scales. Accordingly, transient motor primitives are represented at lower levels of the hierarchy, a combination of primitives building motor sequences at subordinate levels, and more stable overarching action goals at superordinate levels. A neural topography of hierarchal timescales for information accumulation was previously shown in the visual and auditory domains. However, whether such a temporal hierarchy can also account for observed goal-directed action representations in motor pathways remains to be determined. Thus, the current study examined the neural architecture underlying the processing of observed goal-directed actions using inter-subject correlation (ISC) of fMRI activity. Observers (n = 24) viewed sequential hand movements presented in their intact order or piecewise scrambled at three timescales pertaining to goal-directed action evolution (Primitives: ± 1.5 s, Sub-Goals: ± 4 s, and High-Goals: ± 10 s). The results revealed differential intrinsic temporal capacities for integrating goal-directed action information across brain areas engaged in action observation. Longer timescales (> ± 10 s) were found in the posterior parietal and dorsal premotor compared to the ventral premotor (± 4 s) and anterior parietal (± 1.5 s) cortex. Moreover, our results revealed a hemispheric bias with more extended timescales in the right MT+, primary somatosensory, and early visual cortices compared to their homotopic regions in the left hemisphere. Our findings corroborate a hierarchical neural mapping of observed actions based on temporal scales of goals and provide further support for a ubiquitous time-dependent neural organization of information processing across multiple modalities.

Original languageEnglish
Article number19701
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023


FundersFunder number
Israel Science Foundation2392/19


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