By Daniel Eaves

Possible explanations for the psychological phenomenon of covert action simulation

When you observe another person’s action, it elicits an action simulation process in your brain, without involving overt movement. This action simulation is automatic, and can also bias the shape of your subsequent movements towards those that you have just seen… but why does this happen? There are at least three proposals, the third of which raises a particularly interesting question for the embodied approach:

  • Action simulation certainly guides us when intentionally imitating each other; and also underlies unconscious or unintended copying in social settings (Heyes, 2010).
  • Maybe it also allows us to understand other people’s actions from ‘the inside’. By grounding incoming perceptual information in the language of my own body schema, I would first understand how and why I would perform the action myself, and then speculate why you might do this too (Rizzolati & Sinigaglia, 2010). This embodied approach is nice; it links low-level sensorimotor and higher-order social processes in the brain. However, this proposal still needs more empirical support (see Prinz, 2006).
  • Finally, action prediction might be the key objective (Körding & Wolport, 2004). For example, expert basketball players predicted shot success better than novice players and expert observers (commentators and pundits), after seeing only the early stages of a basketball free-throw (Aglioti et al., 2008). Clearly prediction is useful for interacting (and surviving!) in everyday life, but it got me thinking… athletes face so many action possibilities in sport. If they are better at simulating, then why are they not more likely to be biased and/or fall for fake or dummy actions? Perhaps being better at simulating possible future actions, means you are also better at selecting between multiple action choices. If so, then how many actions can we ‘embody’ at one time?

Aglioti, S.M., Cesari, P. Romani, M. & Urgesi, C. (2008). Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Nature Neuroscience, 11, 1109-1116.

Heyes C. M. (2011). Automatic imitation. Psychological Bulletin 137, 463-483.

Körding K.P., Wolpert D.M. (2004). Bayesian integration in sensorimotor learning. Nature, 427:244-247.

Rizzolatti, G. & Sinigaglia, C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11, 264-274.

Prinz, W. (2006). What re-enactment earns us. Cortex, 42 (4), 515-517.