We used computer-based automatic expression analysis to investigate the impact of imitation on facial emotion recognition with a baseline-intervention-retest design. The participants: 55 young adults with varying degrees of autistic traits, completed an emotion recognition task with images of faces displaying one of six basic emotional expressions. This task was then repeated with instructions to imitate the expressions. During the experiment, a camera captured the participants' faces for an automatic evaluation of their imitation performance. The instruction to imitate enhanced imitation performance as well as emotion recognition. Of relevance, emotion recognition improvements in the imitation block were larger in people with higher levels of autistic traits, whereas imitation enhancements were independent of autistic traits. The finding that an imitation instruction improves emotion recognition, and that imitation is a positive within-participant predictor of recognition accuracy in the imitation block supports the idea of a link between motor expression and perception in the processing of emotions, which might be mediated by the mirror neuron system. However, because there was no evidence that people with higher autistic traits differ in their imitative behavior per se, their disproportional emotion recognition benefits could have arisen from indirect effects of imitation instructions.
Keywords: autism; automatic expression analysis; embodied cognition; emotion recognition; face; facial feedback; imitation; mimicry.