The research is part of a larger effort to find the neurological basis of social interaction, particularly empathy, a basic part of human nature that allows most, but not all, people to care about others.
The team is headed by neuroscientist Jean Decety of Frances Institut de la Sant et de la Recherche Mdicale and a visiting scientist at the University of Washingtons Center for Mind, Brain & Learning, and developmental psychologist Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the center.
This work is important because imitation is a natural procedure. We dont learn to imitate. It is part of our biological nature and we are born to imitate, said Decety.
A 3-year-old feels empathy and will pat another child on the shoulder or comfort his mom when shes crying, added Meltzoff. We believe empathy has roots early in life. It may be linked to imitation, which we know babies do from a very early age.
In the two studies, which are being published in the January and February issues of the journal NeuroImage, the researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) to explore the neural mechanisms of imitation by measuring increases in blood flow in the brain.
In the first study the researchers look at imitation from the point of view of a teacher (the person demonstrating a task) versus the point of view of a student (the person learning the task). Eighteen right-handed male subjects were asked to perform five tasks involving small, different colored objects. Their heads were held stationary while the PET scans made images of their brains, but they could move their right hands and watch a demonstrators hands reflected in a mirror.