Race modulates neural activity during imitation

Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095-7085, USA.
NeuroImage (Impact Factor: 6.36). 10/2011; 59(4):3594-603. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.10.074
Source: PubMed


Imitation plays a central role in the acquisition of culture. People preferentially imitate others who are self-similar, prestigious or successful. Because race can indicate a person's self-similarity or status, race influences whom people imitate. Prior studies of the neural underpinnings of imitation have not considered the effects of race. Here we measured neural activity with fMRI while European American participants imitated meaningless gestures performed by actors of their own race, and two racial outgroups, African American, and Chinese American. Participants also passively observed the actions of these actors and their portraits. Frontal, parietal and occipital areas were differentially activated while participants imitated actors of different races. More activity was present when imitating African Americans than the other racial groups, perhaps reflecting participants' reported lack of experience with and negative attitudes towards this group, or the group's lower perceived social status. This pattern of neural activity was not found when participants passively observed the gestures of the actors or simply looked at their faces. Instead, during face-viewing neural responses were overall greater for own-race individuals, consistent with prior race perception studies not involving imitation. Our findings represent a first step in elucidating neural mechanisms involved in cultural learning, a process that influences almost every aspect of our lives but has thus far received little neuroscientific study.

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Available from: Alia Martin, Apr 16, 2014
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    • "Using corticospinal excitability as a measure of motor system involvement in action observation, Molnar-Szakacs and colleagues (2007) found increased activity when watching members of the same social group performing culture-specific gestures [5], while Desy and Theoret (2007) found increased corticospinal excitability for viewing hand actions made by members of another race [8]. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Losin et al (2011) found enhanced activity in fronto-parietal regions during imitation of meaningless gestures performed by members of one racial outgroup (but not another) [20]. Another recent study discovered increased activity in the posterior parietal action observation-related region (IPL) and the insula in response to member’s of one’s own race performing communicative hand gestures [6]. "
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