Language and Evolution: Homepage Robin Allott


William James developed an account of 'ideomotor action' on lines similar to those earlier proposed by Lotze. Lotze had suggested that the mental image of a definite movement had attached to it as a necessary result the appearance of that definite movement. James termed 'ideomotor response' the experience that when the subject vividly imagines moving his body he has a marked tendency to do what he is thinking. "Every representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement which is its object. We think the act and it is done. An anticipatory image of the sensorial consequences of a movement is the only psychic state which introspection lets us discern as the forerunner of our voluntary acts. Movement is the natural immediate effect of feeling". James went on to suggest how one may experience this for oneself: "Try to feel as if you were crooking your little finger, whilst keeping it straight. In a minute it will fairly tingle with the imaginary change of position; yet it will not sensibly move, because it's not really moving is also a part of what you have in mind. Drop this idea, think of the movement purely and simply, with all brakes off, and presto! it takes place with no effort at all." William James' introspective account has more recently been complemented by approaches in terms of cerebral motor control by, for example, Pribram and Jeannerod.


Introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always. Introspection is difficult and fallible.. the difficulty is simply that of all observation of whatever kind.
Ideomotor action: Wherever movement follows unhesitatingly and immediately the notion of it in the mind, we have ideomotor action. We are then aware of nothing between the conception and the execution... We think the act, and it is done; and that is all that introspection tells us of the matter... it is no curiosity, but simply the normal process stripped of disguise... the determining condition of the unhesitating and resistless sequence of the act seems to be the absence of any conflicting notion in the mind.
We know what it is to get out of bed on a freezing morning in a room without a fire ... probably most persons have lain on certain mornings for an hour at a time unable to brace themselves to the resolve... Now how do we ever get up under such circumstances? ... we more often than not get up without any struggle or decision at all. We suddenly find we have got up. A fortunate lapse of consciousness occurs ...the idea flashes across us, "Hollo! I must lie here no longer" - an idea which at that lucky instant awakens no contradictory or paralyzing suggestions, and consequently produces immediately its appropriate motor effects.

There is now research evidence (using PET and MRI scanning) which demonstrates that bodily action is preceded by a mental picturing of the proposed action (something Pribram called an Image of Achievement). That is, a perceptually-organised pattern is transduced into a motor program and executed by the changes in posture, changes in limb positions which constitute human action. This gives a neurological realisation of what in evolutionary terms must have been an intimate intertwining of perception and action not as separate functions but as part of single system for effective behaviour in any creature's environment. What this paper goes on to consider is whether if action follows on from brain image, does the converse apply? does externally perceived action produce an internalised motor program which is available in its turn to be imaged and then expressed by action of the perceiving individual? If so, this throws light on something of very great importance but which has remained poorly understood until now, the nature of imitation. It also has many other applications or implications, for example, the impact of TV, video or film scenes of action, the behaviour of crowds or mobs, or more generally conformist behaviour, the operation of language in hypnosis or oratory. There are of course detailed questions open to research: the nature of the transition between visual image and motor program, the relation between language and action, the location in the brain of the processes linking vision and motor programs, the scope for simulating such processes in artificial intelligence, the implications for evolutionary psychology, the contact with thought about representation.

I The imitation circuit
II Innateness of imitation
II Motor imagery, motor perception, motor execution
IV Artificial intelligence and imitation
V Imitation and representation

I The imitation circuit

1. Action is preceded by image, that is, visualisation of the action provides the structure for the action executed

2. Perception of external action provides structure for creation of the internal motor program for action

3. The circuit is completed:

Visual perception of external action
Creation of internal motor program for action
Translation of internal program into external action

= Imitation

II Innateness of imitation - Notes

Mead:The relation of imitation to the theory of animal perception [1907]

Thorpe: how is it that man achieved this extraordinarily perfect imitative ability?

Hayek: A great capacity for imitating, that is, translating perceived into performed movements. This may indeed have been one of the most important steps in the development of the brain.

Yando, Seitz and Zigler [1978 Imitation: A developmental perspective] Piaget has described such clear changes in imitation as a function of changes in a child's level of cognitive development. Piaget has suggested that newborn infants are not capable of true imitation at all. The nature of imitation remains in many ways a mystery.

Maratos: Imitation touches upon many different aspects of functioning of the human mind, i.e. intersensory perception and intermodal coordination, emotional and motivational issues, cognitive capacities, developmental theories, etc. The phenomenon still seems to puzzle the neuroscientists and the developmental psychologists.

In motor imitation actors match their own movements to those of a visually presented model. Although humans are very accurate in imitating many complex motor skills, as can be observed for instance in sport, the mechanisms that underlie successful imitation in the domain of sensory- motor coordination are poorly understood. [Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research

Molnar and Nagy: the so called Meltzoff-Moore effect (the astonishing imitative capacity of newborns)

Meltzoff and Moore carried out well-conceived, well-controlled and statistically-validated experiments to investigate imitation by newborn infants of adult facial gestures.

Infants between 12 and 21 days of age can imitate both facial and manual gestures... Such imitation implies that human neonates can equate their own unseen behaviors with gestures they see others perform. (Meltzoff and Moore 1977:75)

The hypothesis we favor is that this imitation is based on the neonate's capacity to represent visually and proprioceptively perceived information in a form common to both modalities. The infant could thus compare the sensory information from his own unseen motor behavior to a `supramodal' representation of the visually perceived gesture and construct the match required. ... Our recent observations of facial imitation in six newborns- one only 60 minutes old - suggest to us that the ability to use intermodal equivalences is an innate ability of humans.(Meltzoff and Moore 1977: 78)

Newborn infants ranging in age from 0.7 to 71 hours old were tested for their ability to imitate 2 adult facial gestures: mouth opening and tongue protrusion. ... The results showed that newborn infants can imitate both adult displays. (Meltzoff and Moore 1983: 702)

infants use the equivalence between the act seen and the act done as the fundamental basis for generating the behavioral match. ... this imitation is mediated by a representational system that allows infants to unite within one common framework their own body transformations and those of others. According to this view, both visual and motor transformations of the body can be represented in a common form and thus directly compared. (Meltzoff and Moore 1983: 708)

How does a child (or, for that matter, an adult) transfer a pattern of light or sound into a pattern of muscular control that serves to reproduce a structure functionally equivalent to the model? The hypothesis to be entertained is that imitation is a specialised mode of action in which the structure of an amodal percept directly specifies the structure of the action to be performed. (Studdert-Kennedy 1986: 206)

The structural foundations for the imitative movements cannot be learned. It is necessary to assume an innate structure that at least partly matches the structure of the adult models to explain both imitation and more complex reciprocal or complementary interactions which are characteristic of communication between child and adult from immediately after birth.(Trevarthen 1984: 253, 256)

If you see someone yawning, you will probably yawn. If you think about (visualise or form a mental image of yourself) yawning, you will probably yawn. All bodily movements are changes in posture - and posture is body-image. We visualise any movement (of arm, leg, head, hand, mouth) as a change in body-image, a change in posture - the movement brings our actual posture into coincidence with our visualised new body-image, visualised posture. This is readily linked to the newborn infant's ability to mimic adult facial movements. The hour-old baby protrudes its tongue when it sees the adult do so.

Imitation of actions or sounds seems to require ability: 1. to perceive external patterning (looking or listening); 2. to analyse the perceived external patterning into discrete uniform elements; 3. to transfer the set of elements to another functional system in the brain, possibly transform them there and form them into a production program; 4. to activate the production program through the peripheral devices of the second functional system (produce imitated speech, imitated facial expression, imitated bodily action).

Motor imagery, motor perception, motor execution

Deecke, Luder. 1996. Planning, preparation, execution and imagery of volitional action. Cog. Brain Res. 3: 59-64.
p. 62 "motor imagery set (mental representation of motor acts). The 'visualization' of a motor act, i.e. to internally envisage a motor act without that it actually takes place is the topic of the present special issue [based on Vienna symposium 1994 'Mental representation of Motor Acts'] ... it seems likely that imagery activates the same areas of the brain that are activated by actual perception.

Decety, Jean. 1996. Do imagined and executed actions share the same neural substrate? Cog. Brain Res. 3: 87-93
p. 87 "Motor imagery can be defined as a dynamic state during which a subject mentally simulates a given action ... The same reasoning that is used in visual imagery research can be extended to motor imagery, by assuming that motor images share the same neural mechanisms as those that are responsible for preparation and programming of actual movements
p. 92 "These results altogether suggest that mental representations during observation of action performed by others ... share common neural mechanisms with other covert aspects of motor performance, such as planning and programming.

Berthoz, Alain. 1996. The role of inhibition in the hierarchical gating of executed and imagined movements. Cog. Brain Res. 3: 101-113
p. 101 "PET data showing that indeed the same structures are activated in both types of movement [imaginative and executive] support this idea.
p. 107 PET scan showing this in Neuroreport 5 (1994) 921- 924 Lang, Petit et al.

Jeannerod, M. 1994. "The representational brain: Neural correlates of motor interaction and imagery". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17: 187-245. [June 1994]
p. 187 "motor imagery ... the general idea of this target article is that actions are driven by an internally represented goal rather than directly by the external world. ... relying on identifiable building blocks ... Motor representations are not objects of contemplation; they are normally rapidly transformed into movements.
Motor imagery would ... relate to the representation of the self in action ... the teacher and pupil situation during the action of learning a motor skill like playing a music instrument. The pupil watches the teacher demonstrating an action, with the instruction of later imitating and reproducing that action. Although the pupil remains immobile during the teacher's demonstration, he must image in his mind the teacher's action.
p. 190 "Recently, these authenticated that the same neurons also fire while the monkey observes the experimenter [or another monkey] performing the same action [as the monkey itself had previously performed] [Di Pellegrino et al. 1992 "Understanding Motor Events" Experimental Brain Research 1992 91: 176-180.

Kosslyn: The research we have completed over the past ten years has just been summarized in a book [Image and Brain The Resolution of the Imagery Debate MIT Press]. We study the neural substrate underlying visual mental imagery; for example, we have used PET to show that many of the same structures that are involved in object recognition are also involved in imagery.

Trends in Neurosciences February 1997 Motor imagery: never in your wildest dream. Crammond, Donald J. page 54-57
p. 54 "Research into motor imagery, the mental rehearsal of a motor act, is providing new insights into the representation of willed action. ... Results from a wide range of studies supports the notion that motor imagery and execution involves activities of very similar cerebral motor structures 'at all stages of motor control'[ ] ... These results ... suggest that imaged movements are constrained by the same physical laws and physiological limitations that apply to our everyday motor behaviors ...

Artificial intelligence and imitation: Notes

[Hayes and Demiris. 1994] Robot learning by imitation. The field of learning by imitation is largely untouched. Robots as ethological tools with which to study learning by imitation.

[Bakker and Kuniyoshi ETL Tsukuba Science City Japan 1996] Robot See, Robot Do. A spate of recent papers on robot imitation by researchers in Japan, Europe and Australia. The first few tentative steps towards robot imitation have already been taken. Recent work at ETL is drawing on insights from developmental psychology to address some of these problems in a practical way.Imitation is not an innate behaviour; it must be learned [according to Piaget and Yando]. Children are at first unable to imitate at all, and can only imitate novel behaviours (with limited success) after the age of 12 months.
[Minsky] Why can we build robots that compete with highly trained workers to assemble intricate machinery in factories---but not robots that can help with ordinary housework? It is because the objects and activities of everyday life are too endlessly varied to be described by precise, logical definitions and deductions.

[Minsky] The future work of mind design will not be much like what we do today. Some programmers will continue to use traditional languages and processes. Others programmers will turn toward new kinds of knowledge-based expert systems. But eventually all of this will be incorporated into systems that exploit two new kinds of resources. On one side, we will use huge pre-programmed reservoirs of commonsense knowledge. On the other side, we will have powerful, modular learning machines equipped with no knowledge at all. To program today, we must describe things very carefully, because nowhere is there any margin for error. But once we have modules that know how to learn, we won't have to specify nearly so much---and we'll program on a grander scale, relying on learning to fill in the details.

Representation: Notes from Cog. Systems. 4-2 August 1995

[Greco] the only thing everyone agrees on is the fact that 'representation' is not a completely clear and unambiguous term. the concept of representation has become more and more linked with the adjective 'symbolic' ... However, this connection is now questioned by many. "what is the relationship between symbolic (or high-level) representations and sensory or neural processes? "The main shortcoming of symbolic theories is that symbols cannot refer only to other symbols, but sooner or later they must refer to something else (this is the so-called symbol-grounding problem). This something else, in Sommerhoff's view, must be primarily some response pattern (e.g. some neural or motor activity) that directs behaviour.

[Sommerhoff] "mental images .. have much in common with real visual perceptions. ... they seem to engage broadly the same cortical areas as direct vision.

[Patel] "The nature of representation - if this term still has any relevance -

[Greco] " A list of examples of representations (or sets of representations) could be endless: I shall mention only some of them: linguistic symbols, mathematical symbols, visual patterns, even visual fields or images. representation as an internal event (a process, or a product of a process) ... working as a causal connection between stimuli and responses. ... where does the causal power of representations come from? ... from their interpretation. In other words: because they are symbolic.
[the non-symbolic approach] "the main function of representation is the one I shall call correspondence. According to this idea, the effect of stimulation starts with transduction and hence gives rise to a modification of neural states ... a variation of internal states corresponding to a variation of external (or bodily) states
"What happens to these corresponding or isomorphic events? Subsequently they should detach themselves from the simple correspondence function, they must stop working as simple mirrors and start to substitute.
[Hampton] What do we mean by "representation". Different forms of knowledge will have different forms of representation. Practical knowledge (Knowing How) like using a computer keyboard, or driving a car is represented as "motor programs" in the brain - the programs can become so automatic that the mind just reacts in the appropriate fashion to the changing environment without much conscious thought.

Representations (visual) of:

Persisting external objects
Aspects of objects (properties, views)
Configurations of objects (situations)
Sequences of configurations (events and actions)

For visual objects, the "grounding", the initial piece of grit around which later visual and other experience accretes, is the (closed) pattern of saccades and fixations, the characteristic set of eye movements, on first scanning the object. The structure to which each pattern is referred is the set of hard-wired high-level elementary motor programs from which all actions, all bodily movement, must be constructed. No doubt something equivalent takes place for other sensory modalities.