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

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Daniel EavesORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


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.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Eaves DL, Haythornthwaite L, Vogt S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

Year: 2014

Volume: 8

Online publication date: 18/02/2014

Acceptance date: 13/01/2014

Date deposited: 04/11/2021

ISSN (electronic): 1662-5161

Publisher: Frontiers Media SA


DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00028


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