Eye contact key to learning by imitation


Imitation is key to learned behavior. But with all the behaviors around us all the time, how do our brains, especially young brains, know which behaviors to copy and integrate and which behaviors to scrap? The key may be in eye contact.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience a team of researchers from the University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology show that eye contact seems to act as an invitation for mimicry. Eye contact may engage the frontal region of the brain that controls imitation.

“Many studies have looked at copying and imitation in terms of mirror neurons, which are believed to be specialized parts of the human brain that implement imitation,” said Dr. Antonia Hamilton, team leader. “However, we also know that imitation is carefully controlled - people don’t imitate everything they see, and only copy what’s important. Our previous research has shown that when somebody makes eye contact with you, you are more likely to copy them. So eye contact seems to act as a message that says “Copy me now”. This recent study aimed to see what happened to that signal from the brain.”

The scientists used MRI imaging to watch the activation of the brain during video images which had eye contact and lacked eye contact from the actress demonstrating an action. Data showed that frontal regions of the brain were activated when eye contact was made and that subjects copied the action more readily.

“Previous studies have shown that this medial prefrontal brain region is active in many social situations but responds less in people with autism, which explain why children on the autistic spectrum (who avoid eye contact) might not copy at the right time,” said Dr. Hamilton.

Source: Journal of Neuroscience, Medical News Today


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