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Modulations of mirroring activity by desire for social connection and relevance of movement


Mirroring neurons fire both when an individual moves and observes another move in kind. This simulation of others' movements is thought to effortlessly and ubiquitously support empathetic connection and social understanding. However, at times this could be maladaptive. How could a boxer mirror a losing opponent's expressions of fatigue, feeling his weariness, precisely when strength is required? Clearly, the boxer must emotionally disconnect from his opponent and those expressions of fatigue must become irrelevant and not mirrored. But, movements that inform of his opponent's intentions to deliver an incoming blow are quite relevant and still should require mirroring. We tested these dimensions of emotional connectedness and relevance of movement in an electroencephalography experiment, where participants' desires to socially connect with a confederate were manipulated. Before manipulation, all participants mirrored the confederate's purely kinematic (a hand opening and closing) and goal-directed (a hand opening and closing around a token that the participant desired) hand movements. After manipulation, unfairly treated subjects ceased to mirror the purely kinematic movements but continued to mirror goal-relevant movements. Those treated fairly continued to mirror all movements. The results suggest that social mirroring can be adaptive in order to meet the demands of a varied social environment.

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