RIO Group conference report

Last week Soazig and I had a very enjoyable couple of days at the annual RIO (Research in Imagery & Observation) group meeting held at Teesside University. Now, imagery isn’t our usual sort of thing, but the chance to attend a free conference in our own backyard seemed to good to miss. On day 1 we saw some fascinating presentations from students in Shaun Boe’s lab who had travelled all the way from Dalhousie in Canada. The first thing to note  is that most of the contemporary research was focused on AOMI (which everyone pronounced AY-OH-ME, much to Soazigs irritation). AOMI involves action observation (i.e. watching an expert do the task) while simultaneously engaging in mental imagery (imagining performing the action). The key message I took from these talks was that although it was generally agreed that mental imagery was jolly helpful for improving skills, there was no real agreement about either the optimal ‘dosage’ or at what point during skill acquisition AOMI was most effective. Boe’s group showed some pretty nice evidence that AOMI was most effective during skill acquisition; the ‘cognitive’ and ‘associative’ phases in Fitts & Posner (1967) model of expertise. In a particularly interesting finding, Sarah Kraeutner argued that imagery could reduce endpoint variability without necessarily improving overall accuracy in a dart throwing task. However, a number of audience members commented that although the dart-throwing paradigm is a classic task, it has problems as a model of skill acquisition, particularly with respect to controlling prior experience of the task. Also in this session was a fascinating talk from Jack Binks on using imagery to rehabilitate motor skills after stoke. Richard Ramsay then gave an eclectic keynote covering cognitive and brain mechanisms of social perception, which I found particularly interesting with respect to our work with Geoff Cole on perspective taking and social attention.

On day 2 Soazig and I did presentations on topics that, to be fair, were a bit tangentially related to mental imagery. Soazig presented our preliminary data on the effects of TMS over FEF on presaccadic and premotor shifts of attention. The cool result here is that the neurostimulation disrupts presaccadic attention but has no effect on the pre-reaching shift of attention. I presented some neuropsychological  demonstrating that patients with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy have a deficit of VSWM that maps onto their oculomotor paralysis (see Smith & Archibald 2019). I argued this research had more direct relevance for mental imagery, as there is evidence that making eye-movements can interfere with the generation of visual imagery (e.g. Andrade, Kavanagh & Baddeley 1997), followed by a cheeky plug for our own workshop in July. I discussed the overlap between eye-movements, imagery and attention at some length with Dan Eaves (Teesside), and we were both struck by the fact that there are motor theories of attention, such as Kleins Oculomotor Readiness Hypothesis (OMRH) & Rizzolatti’s Premotor Theory (PMT), and motor theories of mental imagery such as Jeannerods Motor Simulation Theory. However, there seems to be little effort to reconcile or integrate these views, and we agreed this could be an area that is ripe for further study.  The day 2 keynote was given by Robert Hardwick (KU Leuven), who presented a fascinating meta-analysis of studies examining imagery, action observation and action execution, and finished with an appeal to develop more theoretically principled models of mental imagery. Again, I was struck by the parallels between the dominance of Simulation Theory in the motor imagery literature and that of OMRH/PMT in the literature on spatial attention, and the need to develop beyond these ideas. There was also time for a bit of light schmoozing around the posters, and I was delighted to talk briefly with Zoe Franklin about TMS and eyetracking, Elaine Poliakoff about her work on imagery in Parkinsons Disease, Shaun Boe about his ideas on the neural and cognitive mechanisms underpinned AOMI, Gabriel Valadez Roque about using imagery to rehabilitate stroke patients in Mexico and Martin Edwards, with whom I mainly exchanged academic gossip 😉.

The final session was a discussion led by Stefan Vogt which touched on future directions for imagery research. Naturally I made sure I had my 2 cents worth about motor theories of attention and imagery. There was also a prize for the best student contribution, which was won by Sylvia Chiou from Bielefeld for her excellent talk “Is temporal information integrated with spatial information during action observation? Effects of visual attention on the processing of whole-body movement sequences”. After all that excitement we retired to the Dickens Inn where refreshments were taken. Hats off to Dan Eaves for chairing such a well organised and welcoming conference, particularly for AOMI neophytes like me and Soazig. I was also very impressed with the Teesside Uni campus, and the quality and affordability of the catering. I would highly recommend attending the RIO group meeting to anyone with an interest in action observation, imagery or motor learning.

If you are interested in the research we presented my slides can be found here: RIO group talk

Our Cortex paper describing a deficit of spatial working memory in PSP is open access and can be found here:

Smith, D.T. & Archibald, N. (2018). Spatial Working Memory in Progressive Supranuclear PalsyCortex

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