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To mirror or not to mirror upon perceived eye contact? A neurophysiological examination of interpersonal motor resonance

The overall aim of this doctoral project was to thoroughly investigate the effect of observed eye gaze on different neurophysiological markers of the human mirror system, which was achieved by conducting six different studies. In a first study, we developed a sensitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) protocol for measuring the effect of direct versus averted eye gaze on interpersonal motor resonance, as indexed by corticospinal excitability. We confirmed in two other studies that observed gaze direction is indeed a highly relevant cue to shape motor resonant processes, and that – in healthy participants – direct eye contact readily elicits an increased propensity to mirror others’ actions. However, by taking inter-individual differences in the social domain - both in a relatively large sample of healthy adult participants, and in adult participants with a clinical autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis - into account, we've shown that an adequate modulation of motor resonance in response to observed gaze cues is not universal, but is associated with the social skills and abilities of the beholder. In sum, less socially proficient participants (neurotypical or ASD) show a reduced tendency to mirror the movements of the interaction partner upon perceived eye contact.Finally, we provided first evidence that a single dose of intranasally administered oxytocin may provide an effective remedy to enhance the propensity to mirror others’ actions for those individuals who initially fail to do so. This may provide first indications for effective treatment options to help individuals with simulation deficits (e.g. ASD) effectively interact with the social world. To conclude, we add to the growing body of literature showing that mirroring processes should not be considered in isolation, but need to be integrated within a broad functional system for optimal adjustment of complex social behaviors.

Date:2 Sep 2015 →  11 Jun 2020
Keywords:Mirror motor system, Action mapping, Eye contact
Disciplines:Neurosciences, Biological and physiological psychology, Cognitive science and intelligent systems
Project type:PhD project