Human Tool Use and the Left Inferior Parietal Cortex


Humans are unique in being proficient tool users and showing specific tool use behavioural patterns that do not exist in nonhuman users (e.g. use of one tool to create another). A fundamental issue for cognitive neuroscience is to understand the neurocognitive bases of human tool use. A longā€standing hypothesis is that the human brain stores knowledge about how to manipulate tools with the hand (i.e. manipulation knowledge). This hypothesis has been challenged in recent years by neuropsychological and neuroimaging findings. Rather, it seems that the uniqueness of human tool use might be based on the ability to reason about physical object properties (i.e. technical reasoning). Some key brain regions within the left inferior parietal cortex might be involved in these reasoning skills.

Key Concepts

  • If tool use is not specific to humans, human tool use differs from animal tool use in several respects.
  • Tool use is impaired after damage to the left inferior parietal cortex.
  • The human inferior parietal cortex contains brain areas that do not exist in macaques and other nonhuman primates.
  • Some of these brain areas might support the uniquely human ability to reason about physical object properties, which is critical to human tool use.

Keywords: tool use; left inferior parietal cortex; technical reasoning; manipulation knowledge; motor control

Figure 1. Posterior parietal cortex in humans and macaques. Abbreviations in human brain: AG, angular gyrus; aIPS, anterior intraparietal sulcus; cIPS, caudal intraparietal sulcus; dPM, dorsal premotor cortex; IPL, inferior parietal lobule; IPS, intraparietal sulcus; mIPS, middle intraparietal sulcus; PCu, precuneus; PoCG, postcentral gyrus; PoCS, postcentral sulcus; POTZ, parieto‐occipital transition zone; SMG, supramarginal gyrus; SPL, superior parietal lobule and vPM, ventral premotor cortex. Abbreviations in macaque brain: AIP, anterior intraparietal area; CIP, caudal intraparietal area; F2, frontal area 2; F5, frontal area 5; FEF, frontal eye fields; IPL, inferior parietal lobule; MIP, medial intraparietal area; LIP, lateral intraparietal area; POS, parieto‐occipital sulcus; PRR, parietal reach region; SPL, superior parietal lobule; VIP, ventral intraparietal area; V6, visual area 6 and V6A, visual area 6A. Reproduced courtesy of Guy Vingerhoets, Ghent Universityu, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution License
Figure 2. Neurocognitive view of the technical reasoning hypothesis. Technical reasoning mainly involves the cytorarchitectonic area PF within the left inferior parietal lobe (IPL). This reasoning is dedicated to the understanding and generation of mechanical actions (i.e. tool–object relationships). Motor control is preferentially associated with the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) and deals with the planning and execution of motor actions (i.e., hand–tool relationships). This view is supported by a recent neuroimaging meta‐analysis, which demonstrated that tasks focusing on mechanical actions activate the area PF, whereas those focusing on motor actions activate IPS (Reynaud et al., ). The anterior portion of the supramarginal gyrus (aSMG) is thought as an integrative area, thereby playing a key role in biasing signals to IPS to favour the selection of the handgrip that best suits the correct use of the tool generated by technical reasoning (area PF; for a similar proposal, see Orban and Caruana, ). Abbreviations: IPL, inferior parietal lobe; aSMG, anterior supramarginal gyrus; IPS, intraparietal sulcus; phAIP, putative human homologue of anterior intraparietal sulcus; DIPSA, anterior dorsal intraparietal sulcus; DIPSM, medial dorsal intraparietal sulcus and PF, parietal area F.


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Osiurak, François(Aug 2017) Human Tool Use and the Left Inferior Parietal Cortex. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027072]