Experience modulates automatic imitation.
Heyes C., Bird G., Johnson H., Haggard P.
Action observation gives rise to activation in corresponding areas of the premotor and primary motor cortices. We tested the hypothesis that this activation depends on visual-motor connections established through correlated experience of observing and executing the same action. Previous work has shown that hand opening and hand closing gestures are facilitated when subjects observe the movement they are performing, relative to a condition in which they observe a different movement from the one they are performing. Experiment 1 replicated this finding in a simple reaction time (RT) procedure using stimulus-response (SR) movements in orthogonal planes. This implies that the effect is an example of automatic imitation, an instruction-independent tendency to execute movements that are topologically similar to those observed, and not merely an example of spatially compatible responding. In Experiment 2, the automatic imitation effect found in Experiment 1 was abolished by a brief period of training in which subjects responded to hand opening by closing their hands, and to hand closing by opening their hands. This outcome is consistent with the hypothesis that, rather than being innate, the cortical connections mediating motor activation by action observation are formed through experience.