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Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Feb 18;8:28. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00028. eCollection 2014.

Motor imagery during action observation modulates automatic imitation effects in rhythmical actions.

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Sport and Exercise Science Section, School of Social Sciences and Law, Teesside University Middlesbrough, UK ; Department of Psychology, Fylde College, Lancaster University Lancaster, UK.
Department of Psychology, Fylde College, Lancaster University Lancaster, UK.


We have previously shown that passively observing a task-irrelevant rhythmical action can bias the cycle time of a subsequently executed rhythmical action. Here we use the same paradigm to investigate the impact of different forms of motor imagery (MI) during action observation (AO) on this automatic imitation (AI) effect. Participants saw a picture of the instructed action followed by a rhythmical distractor movie, wherein cycle time was subtly manipulated across trials. They then executed the instructed rhythmical action. When participants imagined performing the instructed action in synchrony with the distractor action (AO + MI), a strong imitation bias was found that was significantly greater than in our previous study. The bias was pronounced equally for compatible and incompatible trials, wherein observed and imagined actions were different in type (e.g., face washing vs. painting) or plane of movement, or both. In contrast, no imitation bias was observed when MI conflicted with AO. In Experiment 2, motor execution synchronized with AO produced a stronger imitation bias compared to AO + MI, showing an advantage in synchronization for overt execution over MI. Furthermore, the bias was stronger when participants synchronized the instructed action with the distractor movie, compared to when they synchronized the distractor action with the distractor movie. Although we still observed a significant bias in the latter condition, this finding indicates a degree of specificity in AI effects for the identity of the synchronized action. Overall, our data show that MI can substantially modulate the effects of AO on subsequent execution, wherein: (1) combined AO + MI can enhance AI effects relative to passive AO; (2) observed and imagined actions can be flexibly coordinated across different action types and planes; and (3) conflicting AO + MI can abolish AI effects. Therefore, combined AO + MI instructions should be considered in motor training and rehabilitation.


joint action; mental practice; mirror neurons; motor simulation; movement demonstrations; observational learning; stroke rehabilitation; video therapy

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