Essay: Imitation


1.1 Imitation
1.1.1 What is imitation?

From children imitating their peers and parents, to people starting to yawn when observing someone doing so; there is a wide variety in what we call imitation or mimicry. Darwin’s behavioral study (1872/1965) indicates that individuals in the presence of another, tend to synchronize their movements to match those of the person they’re observing. Prinz (2002) defines imitation as the ability to execute behavior after percieving said behavior in someone else. That is why imitation is such an important factor in ability learning. (Rogers & Vismara, 2008). Through imitation, children learn abilities such as using symbolic gestures and facial expressions in order to communicate with others. Imitation also appears to have an important influence in language learning (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977). As of the late 1970’s, Meltzoff and Moore have published studies claiming that neonates already imitate behavior such as tongue protrusion, and 18-month-old infants were observed selectively imitating movements when they believe the movement was intentionally performed by the model (Carpenter et al., 1998). It is to be noted that, in this last study, deriving an intention plays a crucial part in imitation. Meltzoff & Moore (2002) claim imitation is the first form of communication and forms the base for reciprocity between parent and child. This reciprocity is, accoring to them, the base of non verbal communication. Leslie (1978) claims these early observations of imitation are the start of understanding cognition.

In order to present a three-step developmental sequence of imitation, Meltzoff and Decety (2003) did a review study. Their research pointed out that newborns can recognize equivalences between perceived and executed acts. This is, for example a starting state in neonates (Meltzoff & Moore 1997). It offers evidence for innate equipment. Through this innate equipment, newborns are able to construct their own first-person experiences by linking mental states to their own bodily acts. Combining those two characteristics, infants would have enough relevant data to make inferences about the underlying mental state of others, based on their behavior. They project that others have the same mental experience as themselves when they excecute similar behavior. (Meltzof & Decetety, 2003). These findings show that from early on in life, the process of imitation is already at work as it is a crucial factor in a child’s cognitive and social development. Not only is it important during early development; studies show that it remains so during our entire lifetime, especially during social interaction with others. For example, when adults unconsciously mimic their communication partners, they are being percieved as more likeable (Lakin & Chartrand, 2003). This is what we call motor mimicry, which seems to serve as a communicative act (Bavelas et al., 1986). This mimicry is often nonconscious, and is referred to as the chameleon effect. (Chartrand et al.,1999). Chartrand et al. conducted a series of experiments documenting this effect. She found that the participants in her study unintentionally mimiced the strangers with whom they worked, which appeared to facilitate the smoothness of interaction and increase the likeability of interaction partners. Individuals with a greater empathic disposition exhibited these effects more often. This, again, shows evidence for the importance of mimicry in social interaction, which seems to be linked to our disposition. Some people do it to a greater extent than others, even though it’s unconcsiously. It is posed that ‘Perspective-taking ability should allow an individual to anticipate the behavior and reactions of others, therefore facilitating smoother and more rewarding interpersonal relationships’ (Davis, 1983).

1.1.2 Neural mechanisms of imitation

Functional neuroimaging studies have explored the neural correlates of tasks using imitation. Across several studies, the role of the posterior part of the temporal cortex and the inferior parietal cortex were highlighted, together with medial prefrontal and premotor areas. Also, the posterior part of the temporal cortex and medial prefrontal cortex were activated during imitation tasks. Which is noteworthy though, is that the former region is activated when detection of biologic agents, such as another person, is required (Griffiths et al. 1998). The latter region is highlighted when participants need to attribute intensions to oneself and to others (Frith & Frith 1999). More importantly, some of the brain regions used in imitation tasks, appear to play a key role in the uniquely human capacity to identify with others and appreciate the subjective states of others and compare them to their own as being different or similar (Povinelli & Prince 1998; Tomasello 1999). These findings show that the brain regions activated during imitation also play a significant role in abling us to mentalize with others.

Other findings seem to suggest some sort of common coding between the observation and execution of actions. Perception and action seem to be intertwined in the brain. (Viviani 2002), more specifically in the motor cortex. The same regions that are activated when performing an action, are highlighted when watching an action being performed. Although it seems that the representation of the movements of others are kept distinct from that of our own movements. This finding was deduced by Melztof and Decety (2003), after observing infants correcting their imitative behavior.

Studies in monkeys that are relevant to imitation also show a specific type of neuron; the mirror neuron (Gallese et al., 1996). These neurons fire, not only when the monkey performs a specific action, but also when an equivalent action in being observed by that monkey in others (Rizzolatti et al., 1996). The way to detect mirror neurons in monkeys cannot be used for studying them in, but there is evidence towards the existence of systems similar to the mirror neuron system in monkeys, and was specifically demonstrated in the neural system involved in motor control. When observing a movement, the regions for motor control that would be used for executing that movement become active. Williams et al. (2001) state that ‘Mirror neurons appear to have the capacity to embody a ‘supramodal representation’ of action, functioning as a bridge between higher visual processing areas and motor cortex (between seeing and doing).’

1.1.3. Automatic imitation

We don’t always need to actively use our minds to imitate others. One of the first examples that were used for automatic imitation, was yawning. When we observe someone yawning we often can’t help ourselves from yawning as well. Heyes (2011) describes automatic imitation as ‘a type of stimulus-response compatibility effect in which the topographical features of task-irrelevant action stimuli facilitate similar, and interfere with dissimilar, responses.’. She compares this behavioral phenomenon to the Stroop and Simon effects, seeing that even healthy subjects seem prone to copy the actions of others, without voluntarily trying to do so. Stuermer et al. (2000) studied this, using experiments in response compatibility, in which the reaction time was shorter in tasks where the movement observed was the same as the movement performed, in comparison to incompatible tasks. This effect has been given the name of ‘motor priming’ (Liepelt, von Cramon & Brass, 2008). The review study Heyes (2011) conducted on these effects suggests they are relatively intention-independent, and that ‘they map action stimuli onto topographically similar responses’. It is both related to unintentionally mimicing behavior and voluntarily executing that behavior. Therefore, the research serves as evidence towards confirming the hypotheses that automatic imitation is mediated by the mirror neuron system.
The dual-route theory provides a model towards understanding automatic imitation, and suggests that automatic imitation is indeed automatic and not intentional. These models assume that, once a stimulus is perceptually analysed, the correct response is being activated by an intentional route. However, at the same time the stimulus activates a corresponding response via the automatic roue, which is excitatory by nature. It is a link between stimulus representation and response representation. (Barber & O’Leary, 1997). The latter is what seems to be the route taken when one automatically imitates. There is however evidence that automatic imitation can be modulated by changes in attention and by social cognitive processes that inhibit or allow activation of a topographically similar response (Heyes, 2011). This would fit the intentional route of the dual-route model.

1.1.4. Role of Anticipation

Recent studies suggest suggest that it is not the observation of a specific behavior that is crucial for imitating others, but rather the inference of the actor’s intention (Gergely, Bekkering, & Kiraly, 2002; Liepelt, Cramon, & Brass, 2008). Anticipating an action in someone else, seems to be enough to execute said action. It has been proposed that this is the result of an effect similar to priming, when the presence of a stimulus increases the probability of a response. (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2007). This is illustrated by a study in elite athletes. Using TMS, the researchers showed that although the neural mechanisms underlying the matching of observed and executed movements, specific learning processes may shape them in a way that makes it anticipatory by nature. The athletes did not need to see a movement being made, the mere fact that they were able to predict which movement they would need to make was enough to exicte motor activation (Salvatore et al., 2008).
The ideo-motor theory captures the the observation that anticipating an effect facilitates action (Shin et al., 2010). Ideomotor theory was derived from the question of how an idea produces its intended action. Greenwald (1970) attempts to answer this by introduction of the ideomotor principle. He suggested that an action is triggered automatically by anticipation of the sensory feedback. Hommel et al. (2001) incorporated this idea in their theory of event coding (TEC) which studies the close relationship between action and perception. It suggests a common neuroal domain in which perception and action is presented, especially, with the cognitive antecedent of the action. More specifically, it states that ‘perceived and to-be-produced events are represented in a common domain’. ‘Actions are represented in a similar distributed fashion as perception.’ (Shin et al., 2010).
Sommersville et al. (2006) review work to suggest that these shared representations, as described above, support action anticipation, organization, and imitation. They suggest the motor mirror system is involved when anticipating someone else’s actions. When people are able to anticipate when action needs to be taken, there is a rise in readiness potential. This suggests that being able to anticipate activates the motor system. (Kilner, Vargas, Duval, Blakemore, & Sirigu, 2004).

1.2. Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)
1.2.1. What is ASD?
From the moment Kanner first published a paper on the subject of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) (1943) research documenting ASD has been booming. What was first believed to be a rare disorder is now ingreasingly becoming an important cause of social disability. (Fombone, 1999). Researchers estimated that the prevalence of ASD, based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-V) was 10.0 per 1000 (Maenner et al., 2013). It is a pervasive developmental disorder that is characterised by impairments in social communication and interaction and repetitive and restricted patterns of behaviour (DSM-V). This means that from as early as infancy, individuals with ASD face many social difficulties. ASD is a lifelong (Gillberg, 1991) neuropsychiatric disorder with an onset before the age of three (Limon, 2007). As it is a spectrum disorder the prognosis is quite variable.

There are three main domains that characterize ASD. Qualitative impairments in social interaction can be observed as an inability to develop peer relationships, a lack of showing and sharing interests and a lack of social emotional reciprocity. Difficulties initiating and sustaining conversations, rpetitive and stereotyped use of language and a lack of imaginitive play characterize the qualitive impairments in social communication. Individuals with ASD are also characterized by a restricted repertoire of interests, behaviors and activities. This can be observed by an abnormal focus on particular topics, non functional routines and rituals, and repetitive stereotyped motor mannerism (Charman & Baird, 2002).

Not only are social difficulties part of the criteria of ASD; when studying the outcomes of adults with ASD it becomes apparent how disabilitating the disorder actually is. A study by Seltzer et al. (2004), finds that very few adults with ASD are able to live independently, get married, go to college, work in a competitive environment, or become part of large social networks. Most individuals with ASD even remain dependent on the care of their families or health care providers . Levy and Perry (2011) found that 90’95 % cannot establish long-term romantic relationships or meaningful friendships. Altough the rise in early intervention therapies suggest an increase in positive outcomes in adulthood (Ballaban-Gil et al., 1996), increasing the social abilities of individuals with ASD should be a goal to aspire to.

1.2.2. Explanations of ASD
Theory of Mind (ToM)
Theory of Mind (ToM) is a term used to refer to the ability of humans to learn to attribute thoughts and intentions to others (Humphrey, 1976; Premack & Wood- ruff, 1978). It is proposed that through creating an internal simulation of observed behavior, individuals can place themselves in the shoes of another person and understand their thoughts, emotions, and intentions. (Goldman, 2000). In short, the ability to infer what other people know, want, feel or believe. (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). This is impossible without the capacity to form second-order representations. (Pylyshyn, 1978). These are important social skills that people with ASD have been known to show deficiencies.

This is coroborated by the research of Baron-Cohen et al. (1985). They tested whether children with ASD were able to infer the beliefs of a doll, despite of their own beliefs. Their study strongly supports the hypothesis that autistic children fail to employ a theory of mind, as they were unable to represent mental states and form second order representations. This suggests that individuals with ASD have difficulties predicting the behavior of others. This can aid to explain social impairments in people with ASD.
Mirror Neuron Functioning
‘The human mirror neuron system (MNS) can be defined as the set of brain regions which are active both when participants perform an action and when they observe another person performing the same action’ (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). The core components of the MNS are the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and the inferior parietal lobule (IPL). It is assumed that these regions play a key role in action understanding and imitation (Dinstein et al., 2008). It is assumed that observed actions in others are mapped onto the observers motor system (Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010). Altschuler et al. (1997) found a reduction in power of the mu wave and associated it with mirror neuron activity during the execution, imagination, and observation of human action.
Oberman et al. (2005) found an absence of mu wave suppression in individuals with ASD while they watched videos of another person’s actions. Nishitani, Avikainen, and Hari (2004) also found evidence of an impairment in the MNS when presenting subjects with pictures of a woman performing orofacial gestures and were instructed to imitate these gestures. These studies are part of a growing body of literature that strongly suggest impairments in the MNS in individuals with ASD. As the MNS is important for internally simulating actions, impairments would make motor imitation more difficult. The deficits in the MNS would explain difficulties with imitation in individuals with ASD. (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2007).
To conclude, Williams et al. (2001) state that ‘in the development of the human child, mirror neurons may be key elements facilitating the early imitation of actions, the development of language, executive function and the many components of ToM. A failure to develop an intact, sensitively regulated, mirror neuron system may therefore impair the development of these important human capabilities.’.
1.2.3. The role of imitation in ASD
Multiple studies, reviewed by Williams, et al. (2004), has suggested that children with ASD suffer from difficulties with imitation. As imitation is a critical piece of the puzzle in early affective, social, and communicative development (Rogers & Pennington, 1991), one can only imagine the disastrous effects an impairment in this area has for the developing child and later on, the adult with ASD. There is evidence that children with ASD show a delay developing imitation abilities, for both general and symbolic gestures. (Rogers & DiLalla, 1991, Rogers, Hepburn, Stackhouse & Wehner, 2003, De Giacomo, Portoghese, Martinelli, Fanizza & L’Abate, 2009;). This effects simple body movements and actions with symbolic meaning (Rogers and Pennington, 1991). Children with autism also seem particulary impaired in spontaneous imitation (Ingersoll, 2007).

The cause of impairments in imitation in individuals with autism have yet to be identified. Curcio (1978) suggests difficulties with symbolic representation. A review study by William et al. (2004), though, finds more evidence towards the hypothesis of Roger & Pennington’s (1991) self-other representation, suggesting that infancts with autism lack the ability to ‘form and coordinate social representations of self and other via amodal or cross-modal representation processes’. This not only leads to imitation impairments, but also social-communicative impairments.

McIntosh et al (2006) examined automatic and voluntary imitation of emotional facial expression. Unlike typically developiing participants, the subjects with ASD dit not automatically. ASD participants did not automatically mimic facial expressions, but they were able to voluntary mimic them. They suggest that autism is associated with an impairment of a basic automatic social-emotion process. As automatic facial mimicry facilitates social interaction (Niedenthal et al., 2005), not being able to automatically mimic facial espressions of your conversation partner would seem less adaptive. The fact that the participants were able to voluntary mimic exclude the possibility that there are deficits in perception or motor function.

1.2.4. Problems in anticipation

Kanner (1943) first observed that children with ASD lack anticipatory behaviors. Kanner noted that when adults held a child with autism, the child does not anticipate the adult by opening the arms, unlike typically developing children. Infants with ASD also don’t seem to protect themselves when falling down (Sauvage, 1988). A study by Brisson (2012) even showed that infants with ASD have a deficit in mouth-opening anticipation in feeding situations. It has been offered that the deficit these children show in anticipatory behavior, may be the result of a motor disorder, such as dyspraxia. Children with ASD know what to do but are not able to plan the sequence of actions or execute the movements (Damasio and Maurer, 1978). Several studies show another possibility. Children with ASD have difficulties learning social contingencies(Chin, 2009;). This could be due to the development of active self- and other awareness being impaired (Hobson and Lee 1999).

1.3. Current study
As it has become apparent throughout the above literature, imitation, and more specifically automatic social imitation is an important function throughout the lifetime of a human being. From infancy on, children imitate their parents and peers to learn new abilities, help form a theory of mind through imaginitive play and develop relationships by social mimicry. During adulthood it remains an important factor in developing relationships, and still, learning new abilities. It stands to reason that an impairment in the process of imitation would have disastrous effects throughout the entire lifetime, as is the case in people with ASD. Both the impairments in theory of mind and in the mirror neuron system suggest difficulties in individuals with ASD, such as observed in multiple studies. As they have difficulties inferring other people’s thoughts and emotions, and thus find it difficult to predict behavior, the ability to automatically imitate would greatly suffer. This would also be the case due to the impairments in the MNS, which aids imitation by priming our brain for executing an action after observing that action. Though, as new evidence suggests, the nature of imitation appears to be more predictive than reactive and thus being more anticipatory by nature (Genschow & Brass, 2014). Anticipation could be another piece of the puzzle that is autism. As evidence shows that individuals with ASD also have difficulties anticipating which behavior to execute. It could be the missing link towards further explaining the impairments in automatic imitation that are greatly observed in individuals with ASD.

A study by Genschow et al. (2014) which points towards the existence of an anticipatory process in motor simulation by showing that participants are able to imitate an anticipated action without ever seeing the model performing this action. While they use a paradigm comparing the prevalence of one action (nose scratching) in comparison to another (hair stroking), we have opted to include only one action (nose scratching) in comparison to a baseline measure. As the current study is more explorative in nature we have chosen for a less time consuming paradigm to give us the option to include more questionnaires and variables. Because it is essential that the participants remain focussed throughout the experiment, a paradigm as short as possible is indicated. As the effects were stronger when the action to be performed was nose scratching due to nose wrinkling, we will use this as our action to be imitated and anticipated.

We assume people not only imitate others but perform actions that they would anticipate in others (1). We hypothesize that subjects with ASD symptoms show less imitation and less anticipated actions than people with less ASD symptoms (2).
We hypothesize that adults with ASD show less automatic imitation due to anticipation alone than the control group without ASD. This means the experimental group is assumed to scratch their nose less than the control group, compared to an individual baseline when watching a model wrinkling her nose.
To compare in-group differences between anticipatory and non-anticipatory imitation, a second part is added to the experiment in which the model only scratches her nose, in which it is measured how many times the participants also scratched their nose. The individuals with ASD are assumed to scratch their nose less than the individuals without ASD, on a group level. As an in-group effect in the experimental group, it is assumed that there will be less nose scratching in the anticipatory imitation condition than in the regular imitation condition.
These findings would be evidence towards an inability to anticipate actions being a missing link in the deficits in social imitation in people with ASD. If these hypothesis’ are confirmed, it could open up possibilities for interventions.

Participants. Thirty-nine participants were recruited to take part in the experiment via the university website. Participants were either first-year psychology or physical education students who received credit for their participation. Each participant received a short oral introduction before starting the experiment. After watching a video they were asked to answer some short questions about what they heard. When the video was finished they were instructed to start filling in questionnaires. An informed consent was also obtained from each participant

– videos
The experiment consisted of a 3-part video
– questionnaires


2.2. Design

2.3. Procedure

Participants will be seated in front of a computer screen, and instructed to watch a video of a woman reading a book. To ensure the study being blind, and attention is being paid to the video, the participants will be told that objects will be presented to them in the video and they should try to remember them. The video contains three consecutive parts in which a woman reads out of a book. The first part of the video, lasting five minutes, measures the baseline of participants scratching their nose without the video model wrinkling or scratching her nose. The second part is a ten minute video in which the woman continues reading the book but now wrinkles her nose every 30 seconds. After this, the third video is presented of the woman who, without wrinkling her nose, scratches it every 30 seconds. The participants will then be asked how many objects they counted in order to make a blind follow-up experiment possible. As a final questionnaire, the dutch version of the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) (De la Marche et al., 2008) will be asked to fill out. Throughout the exiperiment the participants will be videotaped.
To assure the study being blinA trained expert, blind to the conditions will count how often the nose was scratched for all three parts of the video.


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