Research Article: Enhancing activation in the right temporoparietal junction using theta-burst stimulation: Disambiguating between two hypotheses of top-down control of behavioral mimicry

Date Published: January 25, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Korrina A. Duffy, Bruce Luber, R. Alison Adcock, Tanya L. Chartrand, Tifei Yuan.


Whereas previous research has focused on the role of the rTPJ when consciously inhibiting mimicry, we test the role of the rTPJ on mimicry within a social interaction, during which mimicking occurs nonconsciously. We wanted to determine whether higher rTPJ activation always inhibits the tendency to imitate (regardless of the context) or whether it facilitates mimicry during social interactions (when mimicking is an adaptive response). Participants received either active or sham intermittent theta-burst stimulation (iTBS: a type of stimulation that increases cortical activation) to the rTPJ. Next, we measured how much participants mimicked the hair and face touching of another person. Participants in the active stimulation condition engaged in significantly less mimicry than those in the sham stimulation condition. This finding suggests that even in a context in which mimicking is adaptive, rTPJ inhibits mimicry rather than facilitating it, supporting the hypothesis that rTPJ enhances representations of self over other regardless of the goals within a given context.

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Mimicry occurs in nearly every social interaction–from mimicking an interaction partner’s postures and gestures to facial expressions and verbal patterns. Even though the mimicker and the mimicked are generally not aware of its occurrence, mimicry has been shown to increase liking of the mimicker [1], enhance the smoothness of the interaction [1], increase feelings of affiliation, trust, and rapport [2],[3], and facilitate prosocial behavior [4]. Given the functional role that mimicry plays in social interactions, it makes sense that goals affect mimicry.

The current study pitted two hypotheses against one another to determine the role of the rTPJ in the top-down control of mimicry. This study showed that–relative to the sham stimulation condition–the active stimulation condition led to less mimicry, suggesting that higher rTPJ activation inhibits mimicry in a social context. This finding is consistent with fMRI research showing that inhibiting an imitative response is associated with higher activation in the rTPJ [10] and with a tDCS study demonstrating that higher activation in the rTPJ leads to an improved ability to inhibit a prepotent imitative response [27]. This study adds to this literature by showing that even in a social interaction, which is considerably more complex and less controlled than the contexts in which previous studies have been conducted, higher activation in the rTPJ inhibits mimicry.

This paper makes a number of contributions to the study of the neurophysiological underpinnings of mimicry and to the use of noninvasive brain stimulation to enhance understanding in this area. First, this study showed that higher rTPJ activation inhibits mimicry in a social context. Second, this finding allowed us to disambiguate between two competing hypotheses regarding mimicry. Given previous research showing that higher activation in the rTPJ reduces the tendency to imitate when inhibiting imitation is the conscious goal [55], we wanted to test the effect of rTPJ on mimicry in actual social interactions when mimicking is a nonconscious, adaptive behavior. Because we find that higher rTPJ activation inhibits mimicry even in a social context in which mimicking is typically beneficial, our findings do not support the role of rTPJ in flexibly enhancing representations of self over other–or other over self–in line with the goals of a given context. Rather, our findings are consistent with a role for rTPJ in distinguishing self from other, putatively by biasing toward self representations over other representations. Third, we show that iTBS can produce behavioral changes in a social interaction, which is a considerably more complex and less controlled context than the type of behaviors typically studied in the lab. We hope that this will encourage future researchers to study behaviors in more naturalistic contexts that yield greater external validity.




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