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Soc Neurosci. 2012;7(2):146-58. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2011.586579. Epub 2011 Jul 21.

From simulation to reciprocity: the case of complementary actions.

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Department of General Psychology, University of Padova, Padova, Italy.


A large body of research reports that perceiving body movements of other people activates motor representations in the observer's brain. This automatic resonance mechanism appears to be imitative in nature. However, action observation does not inevitably lead to symmetrical motor facilitation: Mirroring the observed movement might be disadvantageous for successfully performing joint actions. What remains unknown is how we are to resolve the possible conflict between the automatic tendency to "mirror" and the need to perform different context-related complementary actions. By using single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation, we found that observation of a double-step action characterized by an implicit complementary request engendered a shift from symmetrical simulation to reciprocity in the participants' corticospinal activity. Accordingly, differential motor facilitation was revealed for the snapshots evoking imitative and complementary gestures despite the fact that the observed type of grasp was identical. Control conditions in which participants observed the same action sequence but in a context not implying a complementary request were included as well. The results provide compelling evidence that when an observed action calls for a nonidentical complementary action, an interplay between the automatic tendency to resonate with what is observed and to implicitly prepare for the complementary action does emerge. In other words, implicit complementary requests might have the ability to draw attention to specific features of the context affording nonidentical responses.

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