Viewing a hand action performed by another person facilitates a response-compatible action and slows a response-incompatible one, even when the viewed action is irrelevant to the task. This automatic imitation effect is taken as the clearest evidence for a direct mapping between action viewing and motor performance. But there is an ongoing debate whether this effect is innate or experience dependent. We tackled this issue by studying a unique group of newly sighted children who suffered from dense bilateral cataracts from early infancy and were surgically treated only years later. The newly sighted children were less affected by viewing task-irrelevant actions than were control children, even 2 years after the cataract-removal surgery. This strongly suggests that visually guided motor experience is necessary for the development of automatic imitation. At the very least, our results indicate that if imitation is based on innate mechanisms, these are clearly susceptible to long periods of visual deprivation.
Year of publication
Psychological Science, 29(2), 304–310.