Social mirroring has been proposed to be an automatic process whereby an observer understands the intentions of others by using his/her motor system to simulate others' actions. Automaticity implies that if the observer's eyes are fixed on another person, the observer's mirror system will engage whether attention is focused on the other person or not. This proposal has not been fully tested, however. The current study therefore addressed whether μ-suppression, an electroencephalographic measure of putative mirror neuron activity, induced by observing the actions of others would be affected by attentional distraction. Participants performed two different distraction tasks while watching a video of a hand repeatedly touching the forefinger and thumb together. μ-suppression was compared across three different blocks: (1) video with no distraction, (2) video with mental imagery distraction and (3) video with word generation distraction. While the no distraction condition yielded the typical level of μ-suppression, the word generation distraction task eliminated any evidence of μ-suppression suggesting that simply fixating the eyes on an action without focusing attention is insufficient to induce μ-suppression. A secondary goal of the current experiment was to replicate correlational findings between μ-suppression and empathic perspective-taking. A counterintuitive, negative relationship between μ-suppression and perspective-taking was replicated, and a theoretical model for explaining this relationship is offered.
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