UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Experimental Psychology Seminar - The links between mimicry and reward: Insights for and from Autism

28 November 2017, 1:00 pm–2:00 pm

Event Information


Room 305, Bedford Way

Speaker:  Professor Bhismadev Chakrabarti, University of Reading

In social species such as humans, social stimuli and interactions typically constitute an important set of reward signals. This premise may not hold true for autism spectrum disorders (ASD), based on the observation that individuals with ASD often do not find social stimuli and interactions to be rewarding. This account suggests that social behavioural difficulties in ASD are driven by a deficit in reward processing from social stimuli. In our research, we study the links between reward and a fundamental component of human social behaviour, i.e. spontaneous facial mimicry. Spontaneous facial mimicry is an integral part of everyday social interactions, e.g. we smile automatically when we see others smile at us. Individuals with ASD commonly show reduced spontaneous facial mimicry.

These two processes of mimicry and reward are intricately linked from early on in human development. Mothers commonly mimic their children, and the children mimic back. This cycle of reciprocal mimicry helps build social bonds, in children as well as in adults. As adults, we tend to prefer individuals who mimic us more, and, mimic those who we prefer more. We study these links between reward and mimicry using a range of techniques that measure physiological response (using facial EMG), brain activity (using fMRI and EEG), eye movements (using eye-tracking), and overt behaviour (Sims et al., 2012; Haffey et al., 2013; Sims et al., 2014; Neufeld et al., 2015; Trilla Gros et al., 2015; Panasiti et al., 2015; Neufeld et al., 2016; Hsu, Neufeld, et al., 2017; Hsu, Sims, et al., 2017). The emerging picture from our research suggests that autism represent a weakening of the links between reward and mimicry. Rather than there being a core problem in mimicking others, or responding to social rewards, autistic symptoms might be more representative of an atypical connection between neural systems involved in reward processing and those underlying mimicry.