Perceiving actions before they happen: Psychological dimensions scaffold neural action prediction

Mark A. Thornton, Diana I. Tamir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The social world buzzes with action. People constantly walk, talk, eat, work, play, snooze and so on. To interact with others successfully, we need to both understand their current actions and predict their future actions. Here we used functional neuroimaging to test the hypothesis that people do both at the same time: when the brain perceives an action, it simultaneously encodes likely future actions. Specifically, we hypothesized that the brain represents perceived actions using a map that encodes which actions will occur next: the six-dimensional Abstraction, Creation, Tradition, Food(-relevance), Animacy and Spiritualism Taxonomy (ACT-FAST) action space. Within this space, the closer two actions are, the more likely they are to precede or follow each other. To test this hypothesis, participants watched a video featuring naturalistic sequences of actions while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning. We first use a decoding model to demonstrate that the brain uses ACT-FAST to represent current actions. We then successfully predicted as-yet unseen actions, up to three actions into the future, based on their proximity to the current action's coordinates in ACT-FAST space. This finding suggests that the brain represents actions using a six-dimensional action space that gives people an automatic glimpse of future actions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)807-815
Number of pages9
JournalSocial cognitive and affective neuroscience
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • action
  • decoding
  • naturalistic fMRI
  • predictive coding
  • social cognition


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