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Proc Biol Sci. 2007 Oct 22;274(1625):2509-14.

Sensorimotor experience enhances automatic imitation of robotic action.

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Department of Psychology, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP, UK.


Recent research in cognitive neuroscience has found that observation of human actions activates the 'mirror system' and provokes automatic imitation to a greater extent than observation of non-biological movements. The present study investigated whether this human bias depends primarily on phylogenetic or ontogenetic factors by examining the effects of sensorimotor experience on automatic imitation of non-biological robotic, stimuli. Automatic imitation of human and robotic action stimuli was assessed before and after training. During these test sessions, participants were required to execute a pre-specified response (e.g. to open their hand) while observing a human or robotic hand making a compatible (opening) or incompatible (closing) movement. During training, participants executed opening and closing hand actions while observing compatible (group CT) or incompatible movements (group IT) of a robotic hand. Compatible, but not incompatible, training increased automatic imitation of robotic stimuli (speed of responding on compatible trials, compared with incompatible trials) and abolished the human bias observed at pre-test. These findings suggest that the development of the mirror system depends on sensorimotor experience, and that, in our species, it is biased in favour of human action stimuli because these are more abundant than non-biological action stimuli in typical developmental environments.

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