Something in the way she moves me: automaticity, attention and empathy
We respond to the actions of others at many levels – not only does our mirror neurone system activate when observing actions, we also initiate our actions faster when they are congruent to the model’s. Perhaps the most compelling alterations, however, are in our subsequent action execution: we incorporate features of observed motor parameters into our own action. In the Perception and Action Lab, we have been asking whether this ‘motor resonance’ is automatic or whether it is modulated by attentional factors and individual differences. Using motion capture technology (Qualisys ProReflex infra-red light detecting cameras) to track the movement of participants’ hands through space, we show that when watching a model make exaggerated reaching trajectories, participants’ own trajectories become more curved. Importantly, this pattern is modified by attentiional load,and by location of eye fixation. Furthermore, we show that participants who score high on empathy show a greater curvature of their trajectories than those who score low. Our findings thus far imply that motor resonance is not a fully automatic process.