Bottom-up, not top-down, modulation of imitation by human and robotic models.
Press C., Gillmeister H., Heyes C.
Visual observation of human actions provokes more motor activation than observation of robotic actions. We investigated the extent to which this visuomotor priming effect is mediated by bottom-up or top-down processing. The bottom-up hypothesis suggests that robotic movements are less effective in activating the 'mirror system' via pathways from visual areas via the superior temporal sulcus to parietal and premotor cortices. The top-down hypothesis postulates that beliefs about the animacy of a movement stimulus modulate mirror system activity via descending pathways from areas such as the temporal pole and prefrontal cortex. In an automatic imitation task, subjects performed a prespecified movement (e.g. hand opening) on presentation of a human or robotic hand making a compatible (opening) or incompatible (closing) movement. The speed of responding on compatible trials, compared with incompatible trials, indexed visuomotor priming. In the first experiment, robotic stimuli were constructed by adding a metal and wire 'wrist' to a human hand. Questionnaire data indicated that subjects believed these movements to be less animate than those of the human stimuli but the visuomotor priming effects of the human and robotic stimuli did not differ. In the second experiment, when the robotic stimuli were more angular and symmetrical than the human stimuli, human movements elicited more visuomotor priming than the robotic movements. However, the subjects' beliefs about the animacy of the stimuli did not affect their performance. These results suggest that bottom-up processing is primarily responsible for the visuomotor priming advantage of human stimuli.