From action to interaction: mechanisms underlying the acquisition and control of shared action representations, and their social effects

Lead Research Organisation: University of Surrey
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

People copy each other all the time, often without realising it. This behaviour - imitation - is important. It helps us get along with other people: if we like someone, we tend to copy them more, and vice-versa, if someone copies us, we tend to like them more. We can also use imitation to learn new skills. However, imitation can also have unwanted effects: people copy unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, and even anti-social behaviour such as rioting, especially when they feel part of a group.

Imitation is a behaviour that is thought to rely on "mirror" neurons, which are cells in the brain that are active when we perform an action and also when we see someone else perform the same action. This research project investigates both imitation behaviour and the responses of mirror neuron areas in the brain. The project has two aims. The first is to understand how we acquire the ability to imitate other people. The second is to investigate how we control imitative behaviour, and in particular how our ability to control imitation is affected by the social context when we feel part of a group.

The experiments in the first theme - acquisition of imitation - are testing a theory which suggests that we need to learn to imitate. The theory states that the more experience we get of seeing and doing the same action at the same time, the better we will be at imitating that action in the future. Because we are generally already very good at imitating, the best way to test this theory in adult volunteers is to give people training where they see and do different actions at the same time. If the theory is correct, this training should reduce imitation of these actions, and change the responses of mirror neuron areas. Dr Catmur has carried out several experiments which show that this is indeed what happens after this kind of training. However, those experiments used very simple actions, so the next step in testing the theory is to carry out the same kind of training with more complex actions. The first two experiments will do this. The third experiment will test another important prediction of the theory, which is that for actions like facial expressions, when we can't normally see the outcome of our own actions, receiving visual feedback should help us to improve imitation. This experiment could help design training methods for people who have trouble imitating (such as people with autism), or to improve imitation learning of skills, sports, or dance.

The second theme investigates how the brain controls imitation in a social context. Previous work has shown that people imitate more when they are focused on being part of a group, rather than on being an individual. Another piece of research has identified the areas of the brain that control how much we imitate. The new theory being tested in this theme brings these two pieces of research together and suggests that the reason we imitate more when we are focused on being part of a group is that we are less able to control how much we imitate. Volunteers will do a simple imitation task while their brain activity is measured in a brain scanner. At the same time, they will either focus on being part of a group, or on being an individual. The connections between brain areas involved in controlling imitation and mirror neuron areas will be measured. If the theory is correct, then when the volunteers focus on being part of a group, these connections should be reduced. This means the volunteers will be less able to control their imitation, so they should imitate more. This research has implications for people's behaviour in group situations. If people are less able to control imitation of others when they are in a group, then if we don't want people to imitate undesirable behaviour, perhaps we need to find ways to make them feel more individual. On the other hand, when imitation within a group is desirable, we should try to increase the degree to which people feel part of the group.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

One set of beneficiaries of the research in Theme 1 are practitioners who use interventions based on action observation or imitation training. For example this could be in the rehabilitation of stroke patients; in the treatment of patients with syndromes such as complex regional pain syndrome in which sensorimotor functioning is impaired; or to improve social interaction in autism spectrum conditions.

The research in Theme 2 is more theoretical at this stage, but may ultimately inform policy where imitative group behaviour is concerned. These impacts will therefore be more long-term. Potential beneficiaries will be policy makers in a diverse range of fields where the effects of group membership on behaviour are of interest. This could include policy makers interested in the behaviour of large groups in public order situations, or those working in the areas of health behaviours or in food choice, for example. Other groups who may be interested in the long-term impact of the research in Theme 2 include advertising and marketing professionals who may be seeking new ways to influence consumer behaviour, and for whom imitative group behaviour is of interest from an economic perspective.

How will they benefit from this research?

Theme 1 will benefit practitioners who work in the various different areas of clinical intervention detailed above, by providing theory-based evidence for the best way to apply imitation training in order to improve shared action representations. Imitation training is already used as an intervention in some of these conditions, e.g. to improve social outcomes in autism spectrum conditions; the research in Theme 1 will allow practitioners to design more effective interventions with a strong theoretical and empirical basis. More efficient interventions should be more cost-effective and less time-consuming, leading to benefits for patients and savings for health care providers in the medium- to long-term.

The research in Theme 2 will benefit policy makers and others interested in the effects of group membership on imitative behaviour. The research should lead to a greater understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying the control of imitative behaviour. It will also clarify the effect on imitative control of manipulations such as emphasising individuality. In the long term this will lead to more effective policies for controlling unwanted imitative behaviour, which may be applied across a range of different areas. It may also lead to more effective ways of manipulating imitative behaviour in a consumer setting.

Publications

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Catmur C (2014) Authors' response: mirror neurons: tests and testability. in The Behavioral and brain sciences

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Catmur C (2016) Automatic imitation? Imitative compatibility affects responses at high perceptual load. in Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance

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Catmur C (2019) Mirroring 'meaningful' actions: Sensorimotor learning modulates imitation of goal-directed actions. in Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006)

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Catmur C (2016) Understanding self and others: from origins to disorders. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

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Cavallo A (2014) Stopping movements: when others slow us down. in The European journal of neuroscience

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Cavallo A (2014) Timecourse of mirror and counter-mirror effects measured with transcranial magnetic stimulation. in Social cognitive and affective neuroscience

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Coll MP (2015) Cross-modal repetition effects in the mu rhythm indicate tactile mirroring during action observation. in Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior

 
Description The objective of Theme 1 of the grant was to investigate the mechanisms underlying the acquisition of shared action representations. Here I have made significant progress, generating new knowledge about how we acquire the ability to represent others' actions in our own motor systems. For example, I have demonstrated that sensorimotor learning is required both in order to learn to imitate goal-directed actions, and in order to learn to understand others' actions. In addition, I have demonstrated that there are constraints on the speed with which the motor system can process other people's actions, and that the same constraints apply to newly learned shared action representations, showing again that sensorimotor learning is required for the acquisition of shared action representations. The work on this theme of the grant led to a significant collaborative review project with other experts in this area, culminating in a target article in the prestigious journal Behavioural and Brain Sciences.

The objective of Theme 2 of the grant was to investigate how shared action representations are controlled. Here I have again generated new knowledge, by demonstrating that the temporoparietal junction brain area is crucial for controlling imitation, and by showing that failure to control imitation can make us worse at inhibiting unwanted actions. Further work has shown that paying attention to other people's actions may not be useful for controlling imitation and that instead, attention may influence other aspects of our behaviour towards other people. This work suggests that imitation is something that we do automatically, and therefore if we want to control the extent to which people imitate others we will need to find a way to overcome these automatic processes.

This grant has allowed me to form new collaborations with researchers in the UK and overseas, including hosting a visiting researcher from Italy and collaborating with a Canadian research group. I also hosted a highly successful international conference during the grant, with 60 participants from the UK and around the world, including several other ESRC Future Research Leaders. This conference led to a successful proposal for a theme issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on the subject of 'processes for understanding self and others', which was published in January 2016. In the longer term, I anticipate that the opportunity to form links with other ESRC FRLs through this grant will lead to a variety of fruitful research collaborations during the coming years. Finally, I have begun the process of translating the outcomes of this grant into tangible applied impacts through a collaboration with a network of schools catering to children with special educational needs. I will be able to report further details of these impacts in my Narrative Impact report.
Exploitation Route My findings demonstrate the importance of learning - in particular sensorimotor learning - for imitation and subsequent social interaction. I envisage that these findings will be important in at least two sectors: education and sports learning. In sports learning, it will be important to understand that learning occurs best when the learner is provided not only with visual information to copy, but also visual feedback from their own motor attempts, because if imitation is something that we acquire through learning, then we need to see the outcomes of our own attempts in order to match them to the desired outcome. In the sector of education, it will be important to take these findings forward in order to design sensorimotor learning interventions to help improve imitation. This is something that I am working on taking forward in collaboration with teachers from schools for children with special educational needs.
Sectors Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

URL https://sites.google.com/site/carolinecatmur/shared-action-representations
 
Description Although the research funded by this grant is basic science, its outcomes have already been picked up on by a wide variety of end users and it is clear that the impact of this grant is starting to evolve in a number of different sectors. It is particularly likely to lead to improved quality of life in the area of mental health. The main impact of my findings on the effects of sensorimotor training on mirror neurons, imitation, and social interaction, is that they have encouraged practitioners in various fields related to education and mental health to think about mirror neurons' properties as being malleable rather than fixed. This should open up new possibilities regarding interventions to improve social functioning. Such interventions have already been proposed, explicitly based on my research: for example, the use of sensorimotor training and experience in autism spectrum disorder and also in dance (Shaughnessy, in Reynolds and Reason: Kinesthetic Empathy). These findings have also led to impact in fields as diverse as cognitive development and leadership coaching (McGonigle-Chalmers, Understanding Cognitive Development; Bossons, The Neuroscience of Leadership Coaching). I have been personally involved in ensuring the impact of this research in the area of special education, through a partnership with a consortium of special schools. I have had regular meetings with the headteachers and special education coordinators from these schools to explain the relevance of my research to social functioning and to encourage the use of sensorimotor-related interventions in the classroom. I have been involved in two research bids in conjunction with these schools in order to try to obtain further funding to test the efficacy of sensorimotor-related interventions in special education. My findings have also been applied in the field of rehabilitation, with practitioners using these findings to help patients recovering after stroke and other types of injury. The second aspect of my findings, on the neural mechanisms that contribute to controlling imitation, has also generated considerable interest in the field of mental health, in particular for the treatment of conditions including schizophrenia and Parkinson's Disease. The theoretical import of the findings has been picked up in several areas and has contributed to discussions that have had impact beyond academia on the 'meaning of mirror neurons' and the 'myth of mirror neurons'. This is not of purely academic interest because such debates feed into the public understanding of this area of science and contribute to understanding of mental health conditions and how they may be treated. This should lead to societal impact to improve quality of life in those with such conditions.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Education,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Institute of Advanced Studies Workshop Grant
Amount £2,400 (GBP)
Organisation University of Surrey 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2014 
End 12/2014
 
Description Philip Leverhulme Prize
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Funding ID PLP-2015-019 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 09/2019
 
Description Undergraduate Research Bursary
Amount £2,000 (GBP)
Organisation Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2014 
End 08/2014
 
Description University of Surrey Cross-Faculty Pump Priming Award
Amount £3,988 (GBP)
Organisation University of Surrey 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2015 
End 10/2015
 
Description Wellcome Trust Biomedical Vacation Scholarship
Amount £2,000 (GBP)
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Department Wellcome Trust Vacation Scholarship
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2015 
End 08/2015
 
Description Collaboration with McMaster University, Canada 
Organisation McMaster University
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Helped design experiment run by Canadian PhD student Jeremy Hogeveen during his visit to UK
Collaborator Contribution Funded PhD student visit to UK to run experiment
Impact Hogeveen, J., Obhi, S. S., Banissy, M. J., Santiesteban, I., Press, C., Catmur, C., & Bird, G. (under review). Task-Dependent and Distinct: The Temporoparietal Junction, Inferior Frontal Cortex, and the Control of Imitation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Collaboration with Universite Laval, Canada 
Organisation University of Laval
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Helped design experiment run by visiting PhD student Michel-Pierre Coll during his time in the UK
Collaborator Contribution Funded visiting PhD student to run experiment in the UK
Impact Coll, M.-P., Catmur, C., Bird, G., & Press, C. (2014). Crossmodal repetition effects in the mu rhythm indicate tactile mirroring during action observation. Cortex, 63C: 121-131.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Collaboration with University of Turin 
Organisation University of Turin
Department Department of Psychology
Country Italy 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Collaboration with researchers at the Department of Psychology, University of Turin
Collaborator Contribution Funded PhD student to carry out two experiments in my lab
Impact Cavallo, A., Catmur, C., Sowden, S., Iani, F., & Becchio, C. (2014). Stopping movements: when others slow us down. European Journal of Neuroscience, 40(5): 2842-2849. Cavallo, A., Heyes, C., Becchio, C., Bird, G. & Catmur, C. (2014). Timecourse of mirror and counter-mirror effects measured with transcranial magnetic stimulation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(8): 1082-1088. Cavallo, A., Catmur, C., Sowden, S. & Becchio, C. (2013) Inhibiting movements: when others slow us down. Paper presented at the 5th Joint Action Meeting, Berlin, Germany, 28th July 2013. Cavallo, A., Heyes, C., Becchio, C., Bird, G. & Catmur, C. (2013). Timecourse of mirror and counter-mirror effects measured with TMS. Poster presented at British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience, London, 7th - 10th April 2013.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Learning to be social: multiple effects of sensorimotor training on social cognition. Talk given at Royal Holloway University of London 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Talk led to questions and discussion.

Talk led to increase in interest in my research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/psychology/events/eventsarticles/seminarsocialandaffectiveprocessesc...
 
Description From sensorimotor learning to action understanding: the role of mirror neurons in social interaction. Talk given at University of Denver 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact talk led to questions and discussion.

talk led to plans for international collaborations in future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Learning to be social. Talk given at University of Birmingham, 8th March 2016. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I attended the university to give a talk to academics and students which led to further questions and discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Learning to be social. Talk given at University of Kent, 17th February 2016. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I attended the university to give a talk to academics and students, which led to questions and further discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Learning to be social: multiple effects of sensorimotor training on social cognition. Talk given at MRC Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre, King's College London 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Talk led to questions and discussion.

Talk led to discussion of plans for future research collaborations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Learning to be social: sensorimotor learning, mirror neurons, and social interaction. Talk given at Bournemouth University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Talk led to questions and discussion.

Talk led to increase in requests for further information.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://research.bournemouth.ac.uk/engagement/psychology-research-seminar-series/
 
Description Learning to mirror: the acquisition and control of shared action representations. Auckland 2014. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Dissemination visit and talk given at University of Auckland, New Zealand, 9th April 2014. Visit and talk led to extensive discussions and continued email contact with several researchers.

Continued email contact with various researchers, leading to possible future collaborations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Mirror neurons and social cognition. Oxford 2013. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Lecture given to Oxford University Psychology Society at Wadham College, Oxford, UK. Led to increased interest in research careers from students and increased awareness of what is involved in a research career and routes into such a career.

Undergraduate students subsequently contacted me to discuss gaining research experience in my lab.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Response to New Scientist media enquiry. Feb 2014. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I responded to a media enquiry regarding research into mirror neurons. I provided background and helped the journalist understand the context of the research.

Although the journalist did not use direct quotes from me in her article, she reported that the discussion with me helped her place the research in context and she encouraged me to contact her when I have future research results.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25002-brain-zapping-makes-role-of-mirror-neurons-clearer.html
 
Description School visit (Godalming) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I attended the school and gave a talk to their sixth form students which led to questions and discussion afterwards. The school has since reported increased interest in applications to read psychology at university.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description School visits - ongoing 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I have hosted school visits to my research labs on regular occasions throughout the last four years. Students are interested in the research methods used and have shown an interest in pursuing a degree in Psychology as a result of these visits.

The schools involved have reported high levels of satisfaction with the visits and in particular the students enjoy the lab tours which I host.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012,2013,2014,2015
 
Description Sherborne Learning Disability Research Group - ongoing. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Working group with representatives from special schools in Surrey and the West Midlands and other professional practitioners. We are meeting bi-annually to discuss how research into mirror neurons can inform practice with children with learning disabilities; and to discuss applications for future funding in order to demonstrate the efficacy of a sensorimotor training approach to improving social cognition in learning disability.

We have submitted one application for funding which received good feedback although ultimately was unsuccessful. We will submit another application in early 2015.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description The acquisition and control of neural representations of self and other. Vienna 2013. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Dissemination visit and talk given at the University of Vienna, Austria; resulted in extensive discussions with academics from variety of disciplines.

Visit and talk resulted in continuing discussion between researchers in my lab and in Vienna, including a visit to Surrey by a PhD student from Vienna in August 2014.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description school visit (Godalming) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact My talk to the students led to questions and discussion regarding psychology and the brain.

The school reported that pupils enjoyed my talk and asked me to return next year.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015