It is widely known that observing an action automatically triggers a corresponding motor
representation in the observer. There is an ongoing debate, however, about the exact mechanism that underlies such imitative response tendencies. We recently showed that imitative response tendencies can occur on the basis of an anticipated rather than an observed action. Seeing someone wrinkling the nose, for example, triggers the anticipated behavior (nose rubbing) in the observer. This seems to suggest that motor co-representation is an anticipatory mechanism that is based on inferring the intention of others.
The proposed research will further investigate the functional mechanisms underlying this
anticipated imitation (AI) effect. First, we will more extensively investigate the exact processes underlying AI and test alternative explanations of this effect. Second, we will use motor TMS to investigate whether AI leads to a direct activation of the anticipated motor program similar to observing a behavior. Furthermore, we will test how social appraisals, such as the likeability of a person, modulate AI. Finally, using fMRI we will investigate whether AI is based on the mirror and/or the metalizing system.
In sum, our research tests the existence of a link between inferring an intention in someone else and the release of an action that matches this intention. This would indicate that imitation may already start before an actor has released an action.