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Mechanisms of imitation: insights from typical and autistic cognition

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Imitation is a ubiquitous human behaviour which provides a useful model of nonverbal social interaction. Though imitation is easy to recognise, the cognitive processes underlying it are very complex. Here I describe studies of when and why people chose to copy some actions but not others. This includes studies of children, adults and people with autism. I make a key distinction between imitation of action goals (emulation) and imitation of action forms (mimicry), and suggest that there are different cognitive and neural mechanisms involved in each. In particular, mimicry seems to be strongly driven by social demands and controlled by brain regions linked to social cognition. I present a neurocognitive model which can account for these findings. Finally, I will present new data on how people imitate and recognise imitation in virtual reality, and will consider how human-avatar interactions can help in the study of social neuroscience.

This talk is part of the Zangwill Club series.

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