A foundational aspect of early social-emotional development is the ability to detect and respond to the actions of others who are coordinating their behavior with that of the self. Behavioral work in this area has found that infants show particular preferences for adults who are imitating them rather than adults who are carrying out noncontingent or mismatching actions. Here we explore the neural processes related to this tendency of infants to prefer others who act like the self. EEG was recorded from 14-month-olds while they were observing actions which either matched or mismatched the action the infant had just executed. Desynchronization of the EEG mu rhythm was greater when infants observed an action that matched their own most recently executed action. This effect was strongest immediately prior to the culmination of the goal of the observed action, which is consistent with recent ideas about the predictive nature of brain responses during action observation.
EEG; mu rhythm; imitation; perception-action; infant
There is converging evidence that the observation of an action activates a corresponding motor representation in the observer through a ‘mirror-matching’ mechanism. However, research on such ‘shared representations’ of perception and action has widely neglected the question of how we can distinguish our own motor intentions from externally triggered motor representations. By investigating the inhibition of imitative response tendencies, as an index for the control of shared representations, we can show that self–other distinction plays a fundamental role in the control of shared representations. Furthermore, we demonstrate that overlapping brain activations can be found in the anterior fronto-median cortex (aFMC) and the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) area for the control of shared representations and complex social-cognitive tasks, such as mental state attribution. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment, we functionally dissociate the roles of TPJ and aFMC during the control of shared representations. Finally, we propose a hypothesis stating that the control of shared representations might be the missing link between functions of the mirror system and mental state attribution.
imitation; inhibition; prefrontal cortex; temporo-parietal junction; mentalizing
There has been a revolution in our understanding of infant and toddler cognition that promises to have far-reaching implications for our understanding of communicative and linguistic development. Four empirical findings that helped to prompt this change in theory are analyzed: (a) Intermodal coordination—newborns operate with multimodal information, recognizing equivalences in information across sensory-modalities; (b) Imitation—newborns imitate the lip and tongue movements they see others perform; (c) Memory—young infants form long-lasting representations of perceived events and use these memories to generate motor productions after lengthy delays in novel contexts; (d) Theory of mind—by 18 months of age toddlers have adopted a theory of mind, reading below surface behavior to the goals and intentions in people's actions. This paper examines three views currently being offered in the literature to replace the classical framework of early cognitive development: modularity-nativism, connectionism, and theory-theory. Arguments are marshaled to support the “theory-theory” view. This view emphasizes a combination of innate structure and qualitative reorganization in children's thought based on input from the people and things in their culture. It is suggested that preverbal cognition forms a substrate for language acquisition and that analyzing cognition may enhance our understanding of certain disorders of communication.
Intermodal coordination; Imitation; Memory; Theory of mind; Representation; Language acquisition; Face perception
Infants represent the acts of others and their own acts in commensurate terms. They can recognize cross-modal equivalences between acts they see others perform and their own felt bodily movements. This recognition of self–other equivalences in action gives rise to interpreting others as having similar psychological states such as perceptions and emotions. The ‘like me’ nature of others is the starting point for social cognition, not its culmination.
Understanding the intentional relations in others' actions is critical to human social life. Origins of this knowledge exist in the first year and are a function of both acting as an intentional agent and observing movement cues in actions. We explore a new mechanism we believe plays an important role in infants' understanding of new actions: comparison. We examine how the opportunity to compare a familiar action with a novel, tool use action helps 7- and 10-month-old infants extract and imitate the goal of a tool use action. Infants given the chance to compare their own reach for a toy with an experimenter's reach using a claw later imitated the goal of an experimenter's tool use action. Infants who engaged with the claw, were familiarized with the claw's causal properties, or learned the associations between claw and toys (but did not align their reaches with the claw's) did not imitate. Further, active participation in the familiar action to be compared was more beneficial than observing a familiar and novel action aligned for 10-month-olds. Infants' ability to extract the goal-relation of a novel action through comparison with a familiar action could have a broad impact on the development of action knowledge and social learning more generally.
infancy; cognitive development; action understanding; analogical reasoning
How do human children come to understand the actions of other people? What neural systems are associated with the processing of others’ actions and how do these systems develop, starting in infancy? These questions span cognitive psychology and developmental cognitive neuroscience, and addressing them has important implications for the study of social cognition. A large amount of research has used behavioral measures to investigate infants’ imitation of the actions of other people; a related but smaller literature has begun to use neurobiological measures to study of infants’ action representation. Here we focus on experiments employing electroencephalographic (EEG) techniques for assessing mu rhythm desynchronization in infancy, and analyze how this work illuminates the links between action perception and production prior to the onset of language.
Reaching is an important and early emerging motor skill that allows infants to interact with the physical and social world. However, few studies have considered how reaching experiences shape infants’ own motor development and their perception of actions performed by others. In the current study, two groups of infants received daily parent guided play sessions over a two-week training period. Using “Sticky Mittens”, one group was enabled to independently pick up objects whereas the other group only passively observed their parent’s actions on objects. Following training, infants’ manual and visual exploration of objects, agents, and actions in a live and a televised context were assessed. Our results showed that only infants who experienced independent object apprehension advanced in their reaching behavior, and showed changes in their visual exploration of agents and objects in a live setting. Passive observation was not sufficient to change infants’ behavior. To our surprise, the effects of the training did not seem to generalize to a televised observation context. Together, our results suggest that early motor training can jump-start infants’ transition into reaching and inform their perception of others’ actions.
Infant perception; motor development; perception-action; sticky mittens
There are two fundamentally different ways to attribute intentional mental states to others upon observing their actions. Actions can be interpreted as goal-directed, which warrants ascribing intentions, desires and beliefs appropriate to the observed actions, to the agents. Recent studies suggest that young infants also tend to interpret certain actions in terms of goals, and their reasoning about these actions is based on a sophisticated teleological representation. Several theorists proposed that infants rely on motion cues, such as self-initiated movement, in selecting goal-directed agents. Our experiments revealed that, although infants are more likely to attribute goals to self-propelled than to non-self-propelled agents, they do not need direct evidence about the source of motion for interpreting actions in teleological terms. The second mode of action-based mental state attribution interprets actions as referential, and allows ascription of attentional states, referential intents, communicative messages, etc., to the agents. Young infants also display evidence of interpreting actions in referential terms (for example, when following others' gaze or pointing gesture) and are very sensitive to the communicative situations in which these actions occur. For example, young infants prefer faces with eye-contact and objects that react to them contingently, and these are the very situations that later elicit gaze following. Whether or not these early abilities amount to a 'theory of mind' is a matter of debate among infant researchers. Nevertheless, they represent skills that are vital for understanding social agents and engaging in social interactions.
A long-standing puzzle in developmental psychology is how infants imitate gestures they cannot see themselves perform (facial gestures). Two critical issues are: (a) the metric infants use to detect cross-modal equivalences in human acts and (b) the process by which they correct their imitative errors. We address these issues in a detailed model of the mechanisms underlying facial imitation. The model can be extended to encompass other types of imitation. The model capitalizes on three new theoretical concepts. First, organ identification is the means by which infants relate parts of their own bodies to corresponding ones of the adult’s. Second, body babbling (infants’ movement practice gained through self-generated activity) provides experience mapping movements to the resulting body configurations. Third, organ relations provide the metric by which infant and adult acts are perceived in commensurate terms. In imitating, infants attempt to match the organ relations they see exhibited by the adults with those they feel themselves make. We show how development restructures the meaning and function of early imitation. We argue that important aspects of later social cognition are rooted in the initial cross-modal equivalence between self and other found in newborns.
imitation; faces; cross-modal; memory; motor coordination; self
A close coupling of perception and action processes is assumed to play an important role in basic capabilities of social interaction, such as guiding attention and observation of others’ behavior, coordinating the form and functions of behavior, or grounding the understanding of others’ behavior in one’s own experiences. In the attempt to endow artificial embodied agents with similar abilities, we present a probabilistic model for the integration of perception and generation of hand-arm gestures via a hierarchy of shared motor representations, allowing for combined bottom-up and top-down processing. Results from human-agent interactions are reported demonstrating the model’s performance in learning, observation, imitation, and generation of gestures.
Computational model; Interactive artificial agents; Nonverbal communication; Gestures; Perception-action links
The mirror neuron system (MNS) has been proposed to play an important role in social cognition by providing a neural mechanism by which others’ actions, intentions, and emotions can be understood. Here functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to directly examine the relationship between MNS activity and two distinct indicators of social functioning in typically-developing children (aged 10.1 years±7 months): empathy and interpersonal competence. Reliable activity in pars opercularis, the frontal component of the MNS, was elicited by observation and imitation of emotional expressions. Importantly, activity in this region (as well as in the anterior insula and amygdala) was significantly and positively correlated with established behavioral measures indexing children’s empathic behavior (during both imitation and observation) and interpersonal skills (during imitation only). These findings suggest that simulation mechanisms and the MNS may indeed be relevant to social functioning in everyday life during typical human development.
Research has shown that the brain is constantly making predictions about future events. Theories of prediction in perception, action and learning suggest that the brain serves to reduce the discrepancies between expectation and actual experience, i.e., by reducing the prediction error. Forward models of action and perception propose the generation of a predictive internal representation of the expected sensory outcome, which is matched to the actual sensory feedback. Shared neural representations have been found when experiencing one's own and observing other's actions, rewards, errors, and emotions such as fear and pain. These general principles of the “predictive brain” are well established and have already begun to be applied to social aspects of cognition. The application and relevance of these predictive principles to social cognition are discussed in this article. Evidence is presented to argue that simple non-social cognitive processes can be extended to explain complex cognitive processes required for social interaction, with common neural activity seen for both social and non-social cognitions. A number of studies are included which demonstrate that bottom-up sensory input and top-down expectancies can be modulated by social information. The concept of competing social forward models and a partially distinct category of social prediction errors are introduced. The evolutionary implications of a “social predictive brain” are also mentioned, along with the implications on psychopathology. The review presents a number of testable hypotheses and novel comparisons that aim to stimulate further discussion and integration between currently disparate fields of research, with regard to computational models, behavioral and neurophysiological data. This promotes a relatively new platform for inquiry in social neuroscience with implications in social learning, theory of mind, empathy, the evolution of the social brain, and potential strategies for treating social cognitive deficits.
predictive coding; social interaction; forward models; prediction error; sensorimotor control; social learning; imitation; social decision-making
Human beings are imitative generalists. We can immediately imitate a wide range of behaviors with great facility, whether they be vocal maneuvers, body postures, or actions on objects. The ontogeny of this skill has been an enduring question in developmental psychology. Classical theory holds that the ability to imitate facial gestures is a milestone that is passed at about one year. Before this time infants are thought to lack the perceptual-cognitive sophistication necessary to match a gesture they can see with one they cannot see themselves perform. A second developmental milestone is the capacity for deferred imitation, i.e. imitation of an absent model. This is said to emerge at about 18 months, in close synchrony with other higher-order activities such as object permanence and tool use, as part of a general cognitive shift from a purely sensory-motor level of functioning to one that allows language. Research suggests that the imitative capacity of young infants has been underestimated. Human infants are capable of imitating facial gestures at birth, with infants less than one day old manifesting this skill. Moreover recent experiments have established deferred imitation well before the predicted age of 18 months. Studies discussed here show that 9-month-olds can duplicate acts after a delay of 24 hours, and that 14-month-olds can retain and duplicate as many as five actions over a 1-week delay. These new findings re-raise questions about the relation between nonverbal cognitive development and language development: What aspects, if any, of these two domains are linked? A hypothesis is delineated that predicts certain very specific relations between particular cognitive and semantic achievements during the one-word stage, and data are reported supporting this hypothesis. Specifically, relations are reported between: (a) the development of object permanence and the use of words encoding disappearance, (b) means-ends understanding (as manifest in tool use) and words encoding success and failure, and (c) categorization behavior and the onset of the naming explosion. This research on human ontogeny suggests close and highly specific links between aspects of early language and thought.
imitation; language; object permanence; infants; cognitive development
A leading question in developmental social-cognitive neuroscience concerns the nature and function of neural links between action perception and production in early human development. Here we document a somatotopic pattern of activity of the sensorimotor EEG mu rhythm in 14-month-old infants. EEG was recorded during interactive trials in which infants activated a novel object using their own hands or feet (“execution” trials) and watched an experimenter use her hands or feet to achieve the same goal (“observation” trials). At central electrodes overlying sensorimotor hand areas (C3/C4), mu rhythm power was reduced (indicating greater cortical activation) during infants' execution of hand acts compared to foot acts. For the central electrode overlying the sensorimotor foot area (Cz), mu power was reduced during the execution of foot versus hand acts. Strikingly similar somatotopic patterns were found in both the action execution and observation conditions. We hypothesize that these somatotopic patterns index an intercorporeal mapping of corresponding body parts between self and other. We further propose that infants' ability to identify self-other equivalences at the level of body parts underlies infant imitation and is an ontogenetic building block for the feelings of intersubjectivity we experience when socially engaged with other people.
Infant; brain; EEG; imitation; neural mirroring; mu rhythm; social cognition; intersubjectivity
When we observe the actions performed by others, our motor system “resonates” along with that of the observed agent. Is a similar visuomotor resonant response observed in autism spectrum disorders (ASD)? Studies investigating action observation in ASD have yielded inconsistent findings. In this perspective article we examine behavioral and neuroscientific evidence in favor of visuomotor resonance in ASD, and consider the possible role of action-perception coupling in social cognition. We distinguish between different aspects of visuomotor resonance and conclude that while some aspects may be preserved in ASD, abnormalities exist in the way individuals with ASD convert visual information from observed actions into a program for motor execution. Such abnormalities, we surmise, may contribute to but also depend on the difficulties that individuals with ASD encounter during social interaction.
autism; visuomotor resonance; motor facilitation; mirror system; social cognition
Recent progress in cognitive neuroscience highlights the involvement of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in social cognition. Accumulating evidence demonstrates that representations within the lateral PFC enable people to coordinate their thoughts and actions with their intentions to support goal-directed social behavior. Despite the importance of this region in guiding social interactions, remarkably little is known about the functional organization and forms of social inference processed by the lateral PFC. Here we introduce a cognitive neuroscience framework for understanding the inferential architecture of the lateral PFC, drawing upon recent theoretical developments in evolutionary psychology and emerging neuroscience evidence about how this region may orchestrate behavior on the basis of evolutionarily adaptive social norms for obligatory, prohibited, and permissible courses of action.
Imitation is an important component of human social learning throughout life. Theoretical models and empirical data from anthropology and psychology suggest that people tend to imitate self-similar individuals, and that such imitation biases increase the adaptive value (e.g., self-relevance) of learned information. It is unclear, however, what neural mechanisms underlie people's tendency to imitate those similar to themselves. We focused on the own-gender imitation bias, a pervasive bias thought to be important for gender identity development. While undergoing fMRI, participants imitated own- and other-gender actors performing novel, meaningless hand signs; as control conditions, they also simply observed such actions and viewed still portraits of the same actors. Only the ventral and dorsal striatum, orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala were more active when imitating own- compared to other-gender individuals. A Bayesian analysis of the BrainMap neuroimaging database demonstrated that the striatal region preferentially activated by own-gender imitation is selectively activated by classical reward tasks in the literature. Taken together, these findings reveal a neurobiological mechanism associated with the own-gender imitation bias and demonstrate a novel role of reward-processing neural structures in social behavior.
imitation; neuroimaging; reward; gender; cultural learning
This study tested whether the Risk Perception Attitude Framework predicted nutrition-related cancer prevention cognitions and behavioral intentions. Data from the 2003 Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS) were analyzed to assess respondents’ reported likelihood of developing cancer (risk) and perceptions of whether they could lower their chances of getting cancer (efficacy). Respondents with higher efficacy were more likely to report that good nutrition can prevent cancer and reported more preventive dietary changes compared to respondents with lower efficacy. Respondents with higher efficacy were more likely to report intentions to change their diets to prevent cancer and reported more preventive dietary changes to their own diets, but only at higher levels of risk. Results suggest that to improve cognitions about the role of nutrition in cancer prevention, interventions should target cancer prevention efficacy; however, to increase intentions to change nutrition behaviors, interventions should target efficacy and risk perceptions.
Risk Perception Attitude Framework; Health Information National Trends Survey; cancer prevention
The acquisition of symbolic and linguistic representations of sensorimotor behavior is a cognitive process performed by an agent when it is executing and/or observing own and others' actions. According to Piaget's theory of cognitive development, these representations develop during the sensorimotor stage and the pre-operational stage. We propose a model that relates the conceptualization of the higher-level information from visual stimuli to the development of ventral/dorsal visual streams. This model employs neural network architecture incorporating a predictive sensory module based on an RNNPB (Recurrent Neural Network with Parametric Biases) and a horizontal product model. We exemplify this model through a robot passively observing an object to learn its features and movements. During the learning process of observing sensorimotor primitives, i.e., observing a set of trajectories of arm movements and its oriented object features, the pre-symbolic representation is self-organized in the parametric units. These representational units act as bifurcation parameters, guiding the robot to recognize and predict various learned sensorimotor primitives. The pre-symbolic representation also accounts for the learning of sensorimotor primitives in a latent learning context.
pre-symbolic communication; sensorimotor integration; recurrent neural networks; parametric biases; horizontal product
Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are frequently hampered by motor impairment, with difficulties ranging from imitation of actions to recognition of motor intentions. Such a widespread inefficiency of the motor system is likely to interfere on the ontogeny of both motor planning and understanding of the goals of actions, thus delivering its ultimate effects on the emergence of social cognition.
We investigate the organization of action representation in 15 high functioning ASD (mean age: 8.11) and in two control samples of typically developing (TD) children: the first one, from a primary school, was matched for chronological age (CA), the second one, from a kindergarten, comprised children of much younger age (CY). We used nine newly designed behavioural motor tasks, aiming at exploring three domains of motor cognition: 1) imitation of actions, 2) production of pantomimes, and 3) comprehension of pantomimes. The findings reveal that ASD children fare significantly worse than the two control samples in each of the inspected components of the motor representation of actions, be it the imitation of gestures, the self-planning of pantomimes, or the (verbal) comprehension of observed pantomimes. In the latter task, owing to its cognitive complexity, ASD children come close to the younger TD children’s level of performance; yet they fare significantly worse with respect to their age-mate controls. Overall, ASD children reveal a profound damage to the mechanisms that control both production and pre-cognitive “comprehension” of the motor representation of actions.
Our findings suggest that many of the social cognitive impairments manifested by ASD individuals are likely rooted in their incapacity to assemble and directly grasp the intrinsic goal-related organization of motor behaviour. Such impairment of motor cognition might be partly due to an early damage of the Mirror Neuron Mechanism (MNM).
Human neuroscience has seen a recent boom in studies on reflective, controlled, explicit social cognitive functions like imitation, perspective-taking, and empathy. The relationship of these higher-level functions to lower-level, reflexive, automatic, implicit functions is an area of current research. As the field continues to address this relationship, we suggest that an evolutionary, comparative approach will be useful, even essential. There is a large body of research on reflexive, automatic, implicit processes in animals. A growing perspective sees social cognitive processes as phylogenically continuous, making findings in other species relevant for understanding our own. One of these phylogenically continuous processes appears to be self-other matching or simulation. Mice are more sensitive to pain after watching other mice experience pain; geese experience heart rate increases when seeing their mate in conflict; and infant macaques, chimpanzees, and humans automatically mimic adult facial expressions. In this article, we review findings in different species that illustrate how such reflexive processes are related to (“higher order”) reflexive processes, such as cognitive empathy, theory of mind, and learning by imitation. We do so in the context of self-other matching in three different domains—in the motor domain (somatomotor movements), in the perceptual domain (eye movements and cognition about visual perception), and in the autonomic/emotional domain. We also review research on the developmental origin of these processes and their neural bases across species. We highlight gaps in existing knowledge and point out some questions for future research. We conclude that our understanding of the psychological and neural mechanisms of self-other mapping and other functions in our own species can be informed by considering the layered complexity these functions in other species.
reflective processing; reflexive processing; social cognition; empathy; comparative cognition; evolution; motor resonance
Recent findings in neuroscience suggest an overlap between brain regions involved in the execution of movement and perception of another’s movement. This so-called “action-perception coupling” is supposed to serve our ability to automatically infer the goals and intentions of others by internal simulation of their actions. A consequence of this coupling is motor interference (MI), the effect of movement observation on the trajectory of one’s own movement. Previous studies emphasized that various features of the observed agent determine the degree of MI, but could not clarify how human-like an agent has to be for its movements to elicit MI and, more importantly, what ‘human-like’ means in the context of MI. Thus, we investigated in several experiments how different aspects of appearance and motility of the observed agent influence motor interference (MI). Participants performed arm movements in horizontal and vertical directions while observing videos of a human, a humanoid robot, or an industrial robot arm with either artificial (industrial) or human-like joint configurations. Our results show that, given a human-like joint configuration, MI was elicited by observing arm movements of both humanoid and industrial robots. However, if the joint configuration of the robot did not resemble that of the human arm, MI could longer be demonstrated. Our findings present evidence for the importance of human-like joint configuration rather than other human-like features for perception-action coupling when observing inanimate agents.
Both developmental and neurophysiological research suggest a common coding between perceived and generated actions. This shared representational network is innately wired in humans. We review psychological evidence concerning the imitative behaviour of newborn human infants. We suggest that the mechanisms involved in infant imitation provide the foundation for understanding that others are 'like me' and underlie the development of theory of mind and empathy for others. We also analyse functional neuroimaging studies that explore the neurophysiological substrate of imitation in adults. We marshal evidence that imitation recruits not only shared neural representations between the self and the other but also cortical regions in the parietal cortex that are crucial for distinguishing between the perspective of self and other. Imitation is doubly revealing: it is used by infants to learn about adults, and by scientists to understand the organization and functioning of the brain.
Both developmental and neurophysiological research suggest a common coding between perceived and generated actions. This shared representational network is innately wired in humans. We review psychological evidence concerning the imitative behaviour of newborn human infants. We suggest that the mechanisms involved in infant imitation provide the foundation for understanding that others are ‘like me’ and underlie the development of theory of mind and empathy for others. We also analyse functional neuroimaging studies that explore the neurophysiological substrate of imitation in adults. We marshal evidence that imitation recruits not only shared neural representations between the self and the other but also cortical regions in the parietal cortex that are crucial for distinguishing between the perspective of self and other. Imitation is doubly revealing: it is used by infants to learn about adults, and by scientists to understand the organization and functioning of the brain.
imitation; theory of mind; empathy; parietal cortex; mirror neurons; shared neural representations
Building on the Stereotype Content Model, this paper introduces and tests the Brands as Intentional Agents Framework. A growing body of research suggests that consumers have relationships with brands that resemble relations between people. We propose that consumers perceive brands in the same way they perceive people. This approach allows us to explore how social perception theories and processes can predict brand purchase interest and loyalty. Brands as Intentional Agents Framework is based on a well-established social perception approach: the Stereotype Content Model. Two studies support the Brands as Intentional Agents Framework prediction that consumers assess a brand’s perceived intentions and ability and that these perceptions elicit distinct emotions and drive differential brand behaviors. The research shows that human social interaction relationships translate to consumer-brand interactions in ways that are useful to inform brand positioning and brand communications.