Imitation, mirror neurons and autism

Williams, Justin H.G. and Whiten, Andrew and Suddendorf, Thomas and Perrett, David I. (2001) Imitation, mirror neurons and autism. [Journal (Paginated)]

Full text available as:



Various deficits in the cognitive functioning of people with autism have been documented in recent years but these provide only partial explanations for the condition. We focus instead on an imitative disturbance involving difficulties both in copying actions and in inhibiting more stereotyped mimicking, such as echolalia. A candidate for the neural basis of this disturbance may be found in a recently discovered class of neurons in frontal cortex, 'mirror neurons' (MNs). These neurons show activity in relation both to specific actions performed by self and matching actions performed by others, providing a potential bridge between minds. MN systems exist in primates without imitative and ‘theory of mind’ abilities and we suggest that in order for them to have become utilized to perform social cognitive functions, sophisticated cortical neuronal systems have evolved in which MNs function as key elements. Early developmental failures of MN systems are likely to result in a consequent cascade of developmental impairments characterised by the clinical syndrome of autism.

Item Type:Journal (Paginated)
Keywords:imitation, mirror neurons, autism, theory of mind
Subjects:Neuroscience > Neuropsychology
Neuroscience > Neuropsychiatry
Psychology > Developmental Psychology
Biology > Animal Cognition
Psychology > Cognitive Psychology
Philosophy > Philosophy of Mind
Psychology > Evolutionary Psychology
ID Code:2613
Deposited By: Suddendorf, Thomas
Deposited On:19 Nov 2002
Last Modified:11 Mar 2011 08:55

References in Article

Select the SEEK icon to attempt to find the referenced article. If it does not appear to be in cogprints you will be forwarded to the paracite service. Poorly formated references will probably not work.

Fombonne, E. The epidemiology of autism: a review. Psychol Medicine. 1999; 29, 769-786.

Bailey A., Philips W. and Rutter M. Autism: towards an integration of clinical, genetic, neuropsychological and neurobiological perspectives. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 1996; 37: 89-126.

Cohen D.J. & Volkmar F. Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders. 2nd Ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 1997.

Russell J. Autism as an Executive Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1997.

Baron-Cohen S., Tager-Flusberg H. & Cohen D.J.(Eds). Understanding Other Minds perspectives from developmental cognitive neuroscience. 2nd Edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2000

Kanner L. Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nerv Child. 1943; 2 , 217-250

Rutter M. & Bartak L. Causes of infantile autism: Some considerations from recent research. J Autism Child Schizopr 1971; 1, 20-33.

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. APA, Washington DC. 1994.

Folstein S.E., Santangelo S.L., Gilman S.E., Piven J., Landa R., Lainhart J., Hein J., Wzorek M. Predictors of cognitive test patterns in autism families. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 1999; 40, 1117-1128

Sonuga-Barke E.J. Categorical models of childhood disorder: a conceptual and empirical analysis. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 1998; 39, 115-133

Happe F. Autism. London: UCL Press; 1994

Prior M., Eisenmajer R., Leekham S., Wing L., Gould J., Ong B., Dowe D. Are there subgroups within the autistic spectrum? A cluster analysis of a group of children with autistic spectrum disorders. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 1998; 39, 893-902

Baron-Cohen S., Leslie A.M. & Frith U. Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”. Cognition. 1985; 21: 37-46902

Happe F. & Frith U. The neuropsychology of autism. Brain. 1996; 119, 1377-1400.

Leslie, A. M. The theory of mind impairment in autism: evidence for a modular mechanism of development? In A. Whiten (Ed.) Natural Theories of Mind: Evolution, Development and Simulation of Everyday Mindreading, pp 63-78. Oxford: Basil Blackwell; 1991.

Baron-Cohen S. Theory of mind and autism: a fifteen year review. pp3-20. In S.Baron-Cohen, H.Tager-Flusberg and D.J.Cohen (Eds). Understanding Other Minds perspectives from developmental cognitive neuroscience. 2nd Edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2000

Leslie, A .M. Pretense and representation in infancy: the origins of "theory of mind". Psychol Rev. 1987; 94, 84-106.

Baron-Cohen, S. Precursors to a theory of mind: understanding attention in others. In Whiten (Ed.), Natural Theories of Mind, 233-251. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1991.

Boucher, J. What could possibly explain autism? In P. Carruthers and P.K. Smith (Eds.) Theories of Theories of Mind, 223-241. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996.

Hobson, R. P. Autism and the Development of Mind. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd. UK. 1993.

Rogers S.J. & Pennington B.F. A theoretical approach to the deficits in infantile autism. Dev Psychopathol. 1991; 3, 137-162

Whiten, A. Imitation, Pretence and Mindreading: Secondary Representation in Comparative Primatology and Developmental Psychology. In: A. E. Russon, K.A.

Bard and S.T. Parker (Eds.) Reaching Into Thought: The Minds of the Great Apes, pp 300-324. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1996.

Whiten A. The Machiavellian mindreader. In: A.Whiten R.W.Byrne (Eds.) Machiavellian Intelligence II.: Evaluations and Extensions. Cambridge University Press; 1997

Carruthers, P. & Smith, P.K. Introduction. In: P.Carruthers & P.K.Smith. (Eds.) Theories of Theories of Mind, 1-8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996.

Perner, J. Simulation as explicitation of prediction-implicit knowledge about the mind: arguments for a simulation-theory mix. In: P.Carruthers & P.K. Smith. (Eds.) Theories of Theories of Mind, 90-104. Cambridge: Cambridge University; 1996.

Meltzoff A. & Gopnik A. The role of imitation in understanding persons and developing a theory of mind. In: S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, D. J. Cohen. (Eds.); Understanding Other Minds, perspectives from autism. Oxford: Oxford

University Press;1993.

Smith I.M. & Bryson S.E. Imitation and action in autism: a critical review. Psychol Bull. 1994; 116, 259-273

Rogers S. An examination of the imitation deficit in autism. In: J. Nadel & G. Butterworth (Eds.) Imitation in infancy. pp 255-283. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1999

Whiten, A. & Brown, J. Imitation and the reading of other minds: perspectives from the study of autism, normal children and non-human primates. In S. Braten (Ed.); Intersubjective Communication and Emotion in Ontogeny: A Sourcebook. pp 260-280. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.1999

Rogers S.J., Bennetto L., McEvoy R. & Pennington B.F. Imitation and pantomime in high-functioning adolescents with autistic spectrum disorders. Child Dev. 1996; 67, 2060-2073

Hobson R.P. and Lee AImitation and identification in autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 1999; 40, 649-660

DeMeyer M.K., Alpern G.D., Barton S., DeMyer W.E., Churchill D.W., Hingtgen J.N., Bryson C.Q., Pontius W. & Kimberlin C. Imitation in autistic, early schizophrenic and non-psychotic subnormal children. J Autism Child Schiz. 1972; 2, 264-287

Merians A.S., Clark M., Poizner H., Macauley B., Gonzalez-Rothi L.J., & Heilman K. Visual-imitative dissociation apraxia. Neuropsychologia. 1997; 35, 1483-1490.

Goldenberg G. & Hagman S. The meaning of meaningless gestures: A study of visuoimitative apraxia. Neuropsychologia. 1997; 5, 333-341

Goldenberg G. Imitating gestures and manipulating a mannikin - the representation of the human body in ideomotor apraxia. Neuropsychologia. 1995; 33, 63-72

Melzoff A. & Moore M.K. Persons and representation: why infant imitation is important for theories of human development. pp 9-35. In: J.Nadel & G. Butterworth (Eds.) Imitation in infancy. Cambridge University Press. 1999.

Perrett D.I., Smith P.A.J., Potter D.D., Mistlin A.J., Head A.S., Milner A.D. and Jeeves M.A. Neurons responsive to faces in the temporal cortex: Studies of functional organization, sensitivity to identity and relation to perception. Human Neurobiol.1984; 3, 197-208.

Perrett D.I., Smith P.A.J., Mistlin A.J. Chitty A.J., Head A.S. Potter D.D. Broennimann R., Milner A.D. & Jeeves M.A. Visual analysis of body movements by neurons in the temporal cortex of the macaque monkey: A preliminary report. Behav Brain Res. 1985; 16, 153-170.

Perrett, D.I., Harries, M.H., Benson, P.J., Chitty, A.J. & Mistlin, A.J. Retrieval of structure from rigid and biological motion; an analysis of the visual response of neurons in the macaque temporal cortex . pp 181-201. In: Troscianko, T. & Blake, A. (Eds.) AI and The Eye. Chichester: J. Wiley & Sons,.1990

Oram M.W. & Perrett D.I. Responses of anterior superior temporal polysensory (STP) neurons to 'biological motion' stimuli. J Cog Neurosci. 1994; 6, 99-116.

Perrett, D.I., Harries, M.H., Bevan, R., Thomas, S., Benson, P.J., Mistlin, A.J., Chitty, A.J., Hietanen J. & Ortega J.E. Frameworks of analysis for the neural representation of animate objects and actions. J Exp Biol. 1989; 146, 87-114.

Perrett, D.I. & Emery, N. J. Understanding the intentions of others from visual signals: neurophysiological evidence. Curr Psychol Cog. 1994; 13, 683-694.

Emery, N.J. & Perrett, D.I. How can studies of the monkey brain help us understand “theory of mind” and autism in humans. In: S.Baron-Cohen, H.Tager-Flusberg and D.J.Cohen (Eds). Understanding Other Minds - perspectives from developmental cognitive neuroscience. 2nd Edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2000

Jellema, T. Oram, M.W., Baker C. I. and Perrett D.I. Cell populations in the banks of the superior temporal sulcus of the macaque and imitation. In: Meltzoff, A. & Prinz W.(Eds.) The Imitative Mind: Development, Evolution, and Brain Bases (in press), 2000.

Jellema, T., Baker, C.I., Wicker, B. & Perrett, D.I. Neural representation for the perception of the intentionality of hand actions. Brain Cog (in press)

Gallese V., Faddiga L., Fogassi L. & Rizzolatti G. Action recognition in the premotor

cortex. Brain. 1996; 119, 593-609

Rizzolatti G., Fadiga L., Matelli M., Bettinardi V., Paulesu E., Perani D. & Fazio F. Localisation of grasp representations in humans by PET: 1. Observation vs execution. Exp Brain Res. 1996; 111, 246-252

Carey D.P. 'Monkey see, monkey do' cells. Current Biol. 1996; 6, 1087-1088.

Rizzolatti G. and Arbib MA. Language within our grasp. Trends Neurosci. 1998; 21, 188-194

Stevens J.A., Fonlupt P., Shiffrar M. & Decety J. New aspects of motion perception:

selective neural encoding of apparent human movements. Neuroreport. 2000; 11, 109-115

Hari R., Forss N., Avikainen S., Kirveskari E., Salenius S. & Rizzolatti G. Activation of human primary motor cortex during action observation: a neuromagnetic study. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 1998; 95, 15061-15065

Fadiga L., Fogassi G., Pavesi G. & Rizzolatti G. Motor Facilitation during action observation: a magnetic stimulation study. J Neurophysiol. 1995; 73, 2608-2611

Grafton, S. T., Arbib, M. A., Fagdiga, L., & Rizzolatti, G. Localization of grasp representations in humans by positron emission tomography. 2. Observation compared with imagination. Exp Brain Res. 1996; 112, 103-111.

Rizzolatti, G., Fadiga, L., Gallese, V., & Fogassi, L. Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions. Cog Brain Res. 1996; 3, 131-141.

Iacoboni M., Woods R.P, Brass M., Bekkering H., Mazziota J.C. & Rizzolatti G. Cortical mechanisms of human imitation. Science. 1999; 286, 2526-2528

Fogassi L., Gallese V., Fadiga L., Rizzolatti G. Neurons responding to the sight of goal-directed hand/arm actions in the parietal area PF (7b) of the macaque monkey. Soc Neurosci Abstracts. 1998; 257.5, 654.

Liberman, A. M., Cooper, F., Shankweiler, M., & Studdert-Kennedy, M. Perception of the speech code. Psychol Rev. 1967; 74, 431-461.

Liberman, A. M., & Whalen, D. H. On the relation of speech to language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2000; 4, 187-196.

Gallese V., and Goldman A. Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mindreading. Trends Cog Sci. 1998; 2, 493-501

Gallese V. Agency and motor representations: new perspectives on intersubjectivity. ISC working papers 2000-6. Workshop on autism and the Theory of Mind. Lyon, 18th May, 2000.

Hatfield E., Cacioppo J.T., & Rapson R.L. Emotional Contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Surakka V. Hietanen JK. Facial and emotional reactions to Duchenne and non- Duchenne smiles. Int J Psychophysiol.1998; 29, 23-33.

Baron-Cohen S. Mindblindness: an essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books, MIT Press.

Baron-Cohen, S., Cox, A., Baird, G., Swettenham, J., Nightingale, N., Morgan, K., Drew, A. & Charman, T. (1996) Psychological markers in the detection of autism in infancy in a large population. Brit J Psychiat 168, 158-163.

Visalberghi, E., & Fragaszy, D. Do monkeys ape? In S. Parker & K. Gibson (Eds.), Language and Intelligence in Monkeys and Apes: Comparative Developmental Perspectives (pp. 247-273). Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press; 1990.

Whiten A. & Ham R. On the nature and evolution of imitation in the animal kingdom: Reappraisal of a century of research. Advance Study Behav.1992; 21, 239-83.

Whiten, A. Primate culture and social learning. Cog Sci.; 2000: 24, 477-508

Hughes C., Russell J. & Robbins TW. Evidence for executive dysfunction in Autism. Neuropsychologia. 1994; 32, 477-492

Hughes C. Planning problems in autism at the level of motor control. J Autism Dev Disord.1996; 26, 99-107

Ozonoff S., Pennington B. & Rogers S.J. Executive function deficits in highfunctioning autistic individuals: relationship to theory of mind. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 1991; 32, 1081-1105

Ozanoff S. & Jensen J. Specific executive function profiles in three neurodevelopmental disorders. J Autism Dev Disord. 1999; 29, 171-177

Pennington BF. & Ozonoff S. Executive Functions and Developmental Psychopathology. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 1996; 37, 51-87

Byrne, R. W. and Russon, A. E. Learning by imitation: a hierarchical approach. Behav. Brain Sci. 1998; 21, 667-721.

Whiten, A. Imitation of sequential and hierarchical structure in action: experimental studies with children and chimpanzees. pp 38-46. Proceedings of the AISB Convention, Symposium on Imitation in Animals and Artefacts, Edinburgh; 1999.

Byrne R.W. Imitation without intentionality. Using string parsing to copy the organization of behaviour. Animal Cognition. 1999; 2, 63-72.

Perner J. & Lang B. Development of theory of mind and executive control. Trends Cog Sci. 1999; 3, 337-344

Griffith E.M., Pennington B., Wehner E.A. & Rogers S.J. (1999). Executive functions in young children with autism. Child Development 70(4), 817-832

Ozanoff S. & Strayer D.L. (1997). Inhibitory function in non-retarded children with autism. J Autism Dev Disord; 27 (1), 59-77.

Hughes C., Leboyer M., Bouvard M. (1997). Executive function in parents of children with autism. Psychological Medicine 27, 209-220.

Klein, S.B., Chan, R.L. & Loftus, J. Independence of episodic and semantic selfknowledge: The case from autism. Soc Cog.1999; 17, 413-436

Suddendorf, T. Discovery of the fourth dimension: mental time travel and human evolution. Master’s thesis, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, 1994. Internet:

Suddendorf, T. & Corballis, M.C. Mental time travel and the evolution of the human mind. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs. 1997;123, 133-167.

Suddendorf T. The rise of the metamind. In: M.C.Corballis & C.S. Lea (Eds.) The Descent of Mind. pp. 218-260. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999.

Nakamura K., Kawashima R., Ito K., Sugiura M., Kato T., Nakamura A, Hatano K., Nagumo S., Kubota K., Fukuda H. & Kijima S. Activation of the right inferior frontal cortex during assessment of facial emotion. J Neurophysiol, 1999; 82, 1610-1614

Baron-Cohen S., Ring H.A., Wheelwright S., Bullmore E.T., Brammer M.J., Simmons A., Williams C.R. Social intelligence in the normal and autistic brain: an fMRI study. Eur J Neurosci. 1999; 11, 1891-1898

Frith U. & Frith C. The physiological basis of theory of mind: functional neuroimaging studies. In: S.Baron-Cohen, H.Tager-Flusberg and D.J.Cohen (Eds). Understanding Other Minds - perspectives from developmental cognitive

neuroscience. 2nd Edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2000

Charman, T. & Baron-Cohen, S. Another Look at Imitation in Autism. Dev Psychopathol. 1994; 6, 403-413.

McGurk H. & MacDonald J.W. Hearing lips and seeing voices. Nature. 1976; 264, 746-748

Avikainen S., Kulomaki T. & Hari R. Normal movement reading in Asperger subjects. Neuroreport. 1999; 10, 3467-3470

Whiten, A. and Byrne, R.W. Machiavellian Intelligence II: Evaluations and Extensions. Cambridge University Press; 1997.


Repository Staff Only: item control page