The ability to interpret and predict the behaviour of other people hinges crucially on judgments about the intentionality of their actions – whether they act purposefully (with intent) or not – as well as on judgments about the specific intentions guiding their actions. Until recently, however, direct investigation of these skills has been surprisingly rare.

By combining advanced methods in psychophysics and neuroscience with kinematics, I.MOVE.U aims at developing and testing an integrative and radically new approach to the study of intention understanding.

Topics we are currently investigating include:

Understanding intentions from movement observation

How do we understand the intentions of other people? Is it possible to understand the intentions of others by simply observing their movements? A widely held, but untested assumption is that the surface flow of Socialmotion people produce is in most, if not in all, cases consistent with a multitude of different intentions.

Contrary to this assumption, our work provides evidence that movement kinematics convey enough information to discriminate intention. We are now using quantitative behavioural and neuroimaging methods to investigate the usefulness of this information for perception, i.e., whether (and to what extent) this information can form the basis for intention detection during action observation.

Kinematics of decision making

Traditional information-processing models of decision making assume that the process of deciding is complete before the motor system is brought into play. This strict separation between the cognitive system and the motor system is well suited to the problem-solving tasks in which the relevant contingencies are purely abstract. In the natural environment, however, decision alternatives are often associated with actions and it is plausible that sensorimotor control is engaged in parallel with evaluating different options. We are currently using kinematics and psychophysics methods to explore these ideas in the context of the Ultimatum Game.

Real grasps versus pantomimed grasps

Previous studies have shown that, when pretending to pick up imagined objects (pantomimed grasps), untrained subjects move and shape their hands quite differently from when grasping real ones. We want to know whether/to what extent observers are able to exploit these differences to discriminate real and pantomimed actions. Related questions include: What type of object information are observers watching a pantomimed grasp able to infer about the pretended object? Are magicians better at this than untrained people?

Intention modulation in autism

Since the seminal work by Marteniuk et al. (1987), a plethora of studies have documented the influence of intention on human grasping kinematics. This line of research aims at investigating whether/to what extent this modulation is preserved in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A second aim is to examine whether children with ASD are sensitive to early differences in movement kinematics during action observation and are able to use these differences to discriminate the intention of an observed movement.