Associative sequence learning: the role of experience in the development of imitation and the mirror system

Caroline Catmur, Vincent Walsh, Cecilia Heyes

Abstract

A core requirement for imitation is a capacity to solve the correspondence problem; to map observed onto executed actions, even when observation and execution yield sensory inputs in different modalities and coordinate frames. Until recently, it was assumed that the human capacity to solve the correspondence problem is innate. However, it is now becoming apparent that, as predicted by the associative sequence learning model, experience, and especially sensorimotor experience, plays a critical role in the development of imitation. We review evidence from studies of non-human animals, children and adults, focusing on research in cognitive neuroscience that uses training and naturally occurring variations in expertise to examine the role of experience in the formation of the mirror system. The relevance of this research depends on the widely held assumption that the mirror system plays a causal role in generating imitative behaviour. We also report original data supporting this assumption. These data show that theta-burst transcranial magnetic stimulation of the inferior frontal gyrus, a classical mirror system area, disrupts automatic imitation of finger movements. We discuss the implications of the evidence reviewed for the evolution, development and intentional control of imitation.

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