cSCAN Rounds

Cognitive and neural mechanisms of automatic imitation

Humans unintentionally copy each others’ gestures, postures and speech patterns. This behaviour has been termed ‘automatic imitation’, and is thought to play a crucial role in the development of social relationships by building affiliation and rapport between interaction partners. The wide-ranging impact imitation may play in social life has stimulated considerable interest among psychologists and neuroscientists, but quantifying imitative behaviour with high fidelity remains a challenge due to the inherent difficulty of measuring live social interactions. As such, the cognitive and neural mechanisms that underpin imitative tendencies remain poorly understood. In this talk, I will present a series of recent studies from my lab using reaction times measures of automatic imitation. These studies span behavioural and neuroimaging methods and probe the extent to which automatic imitation: 1) varies across individuals; 2) relies on an automatic mechanism, and; 3) is controlled by a domain-specific neural architecture. Together, this line of research shows that models of imitation that are based on a strict division between domain-specific and domain-general systems need updating. Instead, greater focus needs to be placed on the functional role of domain-general architectures in imitation control, as well as the interaction between general and specialised systems. Importantly, the main implications of this work generalise to other domains of social cognition, such as gaze perception and perspective taking, which are likely to rely on similarly organised cognitive and neural structures.