We demonstrate that observation of everyday rhythmical actions biases subsequent motor execution of the same and of different actions, using a paradigm where the observed actions were irrelevant for action execution. The cycle time of the distractor actions was subtly manipulated across trials, and the cycle time of motor responses served as the main dependent measure. Although distractor frequencies reliably biased response cycle times, this imitation bias was only a small fraction of the modulations in distractor speed, as well as of the modulations produced when participants intentionally imitated theobserved rhythms. Importantly, this bias was not only present for compatible actions, but was also found, though numerically reduced, when distractor and executed actions were different (e.g., tooth brushing vs. window wiping), or when the dominant plane of movement was different (horizontal vs. vertical). In addition, these effects were equally pronounced for execution at 0, 4, and 8 s after action observation, a finding that contrasts with the more short-lived effects reported in
earlier studies. The imitation bias was also unaffected when vision of the hand was occluded during execution, indicating that this effect most likely resulted from visuomotor interactions during distractor observation, rather than from visual monitoring and guidance during execution. Finally, when the distractor was incompatible in both dimensions (action type and plane) the imitation bias was not reduced further, in an additive way, relative to the single-incompatible conditions. This points to a mechanism whereby the observed action’s impact on motor processing is generally reduced whenever this is not useful for motor planning. We interpret these findings in the framework of biased competition, where intended and distractor actions can be represented as competing and quasi-encapsulated sensorimotor streams.
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