Automatic and controlled processing within the mirror neuron system

Trevor T. J. Chong, Jason B. Mattingley

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The human ability to recognize the actions and gestures of others is fundamental to communication and social perception. Evidence suggests that this ability is supported by the mirror neuron system, the primary function of which is to mentally simulate a perceived action in the observer's own motor system. Traditionally, the processing that occurs within this network is considered to be automatic and stimulus-driven, but neurophysiological data from macaques suggest that even the activity of single mirror neuron units maybe modulated by attention and context. Similarly, in humans, there is a growing body of evidence to indicate that the mirror system is also vulnerable to top-down processes such as cognitive strategy, learned associations and selective attention. In this chapter, we review the evidence that indicates observed actions are processed automatically, and contrast these data with those that indicate a susceptibility of action processing to top-down factors. We suggest that the assumption that observed actions are processed involuntarily arose largely because most studies have not explicitly challenged the automaticity of the visuomotor transformation process. The frontoparietal mirror system should therefore be viewed in the context of a larger network of areas involved in action observation and social cognition, whose activity may mutually inform and be informed by the mirror system itself. Such reciprocal connections maybe critical in guiding ongoing behavior by allowing the mirror system to adapt to concurrent task demands and inhibit the processing of task-irrelevant gestures.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMirror neuron systems
Subtitle of host publicationthe role of mirroring processes in social cognition
EditorsJaime A Pineda
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherSpringer, Springer Nature
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781934115343
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


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