The inhibition of automatic imitation: a meta-analysis and synthesis of fMRI studies

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Description: Humans copy other people without their conscious awareness, a behaviour known as automatic imitation. Although automatic imitation forms a key part of daily social interactions, we do not copy other people indiscriminately. Instead, we control imitative tendencies by prioritising some actions and inhibiting others. To date, neuroimaging studies investigating the control of automatic imitation have produced inconsistent findings. Some studies suggest that imitation control relies on a domain-specific neural circuit related to social cognition (the theory-of-mind network). In contrast, other studies show engagement of a domain-general neural circuit that is engaged during a diverse range of cognitive control tasks (the multiple demand network). Given the inconsistency of prior findings, in the current paper we avoided problems associated with interpreting individual studies by performing a meta-analysis. To do so, we used a multi-level kernel density analysis to quantitatively identify consistent patterns of activation across functional magnetic resonance imaging studies investigating the control of imitation. Our results show clear and consistent evidence across studies that the control of automatic imitation is guided by brain regions in the multiple demand network including dorsolateral frontoparietal cortex. In contrast, there was only limited evidence that regions in the theory of mind network were engaged. Indeed, medial prefrontal cortex showed no consistent engagement and right temporoparietal junction engagement may reflect spatial rather than imitative control. As such, the current meta-analysis reinforces the role of domain-general control mechanisms and provides limited evidence in support of the role of domain-specific processes in regulating imitative tendencies. Consequently, neurocognitive models of imitation need updating to place more emphasis on domain-general control mechanisms, as well as to consider more complex organisational structures of control, which may involve contributions from multiple cognitive systems.

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