Earlier and More Robust Sensorimotor Discrimination of ASL Signs in Deaf Signers During Imitation
Prior research suggests that the amount of experience an individual has with an action influences the degree to which the sensorimotor systems of their brain are involved in the subsequent perception of those actions. Less is known about how action experience and conceptual understanding impact sensorimotor involvement during imitation. We sought to explore this question by comparing a group of sign language users to a group of non-signers. We pitted the following two hypotheses against each
... ses against each other: 1) Deaf signers will show increased sensorimotor activity during sign imitation, and greater differentiation between sign types, due to greater prior experience and conceptual understanding of the signs; versus 2): Deaf signers will show less sensorimotor system activity and less differentiation of sign types in the sensorimotor system, because for those individuals sign imitation involves language systems of the brain more robustly than sensorimotor systems. We collected electroencephalograms (EEG) while the two groups imitated videos showing one-handed and two-handed ASL signs. Time-frequency data analysis was performed on alpha- and beta-range oscillations while they watched signs with the intent to imitate, and imitated the signs. During observation, deaf signers showed early differentiation in alpha/beta power between the one- and two-handed sign conditions, whereas hearing non-signers did not discriminate between the sign categories this way. Significant differences between groups were seen during sign imitation, wherein deaf signers showed desynchronization of alpha/beta EEG signals, and hearing non-signers showed increased power. The study suggests that in an imitative context, deaf signers engage anticipatory motor preparation in advance of action production, while hearing non-signers engage slower, more memory-related processes to help them complete with the complex task.