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The associative sequence learning model proposes that the development of the mirror system depends on the same mechanisms of associative learning that mediate Pavlovian and instrumental conditioning. To test this model, two experiments used the reduction of automatic imitation through incompatible sensorimotor training to assess whether mirror system plasticity is sensitive to contingency (i.e., the extent to which activation of one representation predicts activation of another). In Experiment 1, residual automatic imitation was measured following incompatible training in which the action stimulus was a perfect predictor of the response (contingent) or not at all predictive of the response (noncontingent). A contingency effect was observed: There was less automatic imitation indicative of more learning in the contingent group. Experiment 2 replicated this contingency effect and showed that, as predicted by associative learning theory, it can be abolished by signaling trials in which the response occurs in the absence of an action stimulus. These findings support the view that mirror system development depends on associative learning and indicate that this learning is not purely Hebbian. If this is correct, associative learning theory could be used to explain, predict, and intervene in mirror system development.

Original publication




Journal article


J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform

Publication Date





840 - 852


Adult, Association Learning, Attention, Conditioning (Psychology), Cues, Discrimination Learning, Female, Gestures, Humans, Imitative Behavior, Male, Pattern Recognition, Visual, Psychomotor Performance, Reaction Time, Young Adult