Rhythmic entrainment is broadly defined as “a synchronization of some aspect of biological activity with regularly recurring events in the environment” (London, 2012, p. 4). Entrainment to an auditory rhythm has been shown to occur across a variety of different behaviors and processes in humans; indeed, humans have been shown to exhibit entrainment of motor behavior (Large & Palmer, 2002; Wallin, Merker, & Brown, 2000), neural activity (Fujioka, Trainor, Large, & Ross, 2012; Snyder & Large, 2005), and attentional distribution (Drake, Jones, & Baruch, 2000; Escoffier, Sheng, & Schirmer, 2010; Winkler et al., 2009) to such externally presented auditory rhythms. Sensorimotor synchronization is of particular interest, since homo sapiens is the one of the only species in which both males and females engage in spontaneous synchronization of body movements to auditory rhythmic pulses (Patel, 2006); in fact, chimpanzees (our close evolutionary relatives) are the only other species that have been shown to display such behavior (Hattori, Tomonaga, & Matsuzawa, 2013). For such reasons, it has been proposed that sensorimotor rhythmic behavior and entrainment originally evolved to serve a social function, allowing humans to synchronize their behavior with others’ and to use this ability for productivity and communication (Bispham, 2006; Fitch, 2006; Huron, 2001). Some researchers have suggested that rhythmic entrainment to music emerged as a byproduct of vocal mimicry, and evolved in humans to support language learning (Schachner, Brady, Pepperberg, & Hauser, 2009). In recent years, research has been conducted that has helped to elucidate the nature of humans’ ability for synchronized behavior with one another – also known as joint action. According to Sebanz, Bekkering, & Knoblich (2006), joint action requires the interacting individuals to functionally share action representations so that each is able to predict the actions of the other. In this sense, joint action is highly related to complex social abstract thinking skills such as theory of mind and joint attention. Interestingly, many studies have suggested a lack of ability for consistent sensorimotor synchronization in children under 4 years of age (Eerola, Luck, & Toiviainen, 2006; Fitzpatrick et al., 1996; McAuley et al., 2006; Provasi and Bobin-Bègue, 2003), the same age that theory of mind skills have been said to develop (Wimmer & Perner, 1983). Based on such evidence, researchers have hypothesized that music can act as a form of such joint action communication, employing the mirror neuron system to arrive at the music’s emotional content and meaning. According to Overy & Molnar-Szakacs (2009), “Music is perceived not only as an auditory signal, but also as intentional, hierarchically organized sequences of expressive motor acts behind the signal…the human mirror neuron system allows for co-representation and sharing of a musical experience between agent and listener” (p. 489). Further support for this theory of music as a means of social communication has been provided by studies showing that joint sensorimotor synchronization to an external auditory beat increases prosocial behavior in adults (Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009), 4-year-old children (Kirschner & Tomasello, 2010), and even 14-month-old infants (Cirelli, Einarson, & Trainor, 2012).
Interestingly, a recent study by Kirschner & Tomasello (2009) found that children as young as 2.5 years old – who were previously considered incapable of consistent sensorimotor entrainment – exhibited increased rhythmic performance in a social rather than a nonsocial context. This study attempted to isolate the effects of social context on rhythmic synchronization ability by asking children ages 2.5, 3.5, and 4.5 years to drum along with an isochronous beat presented by either a human adult, a drumming machine, or a radio. The drumming machine and radio controlled for audio and visual stimuli, so that (presumably) the only difference between the human and nonhuman conditions was the social context provided by the human. Results showed that young children’s entrainment accuracy was increased in the human adult condition relative to the two other “nonsocial” conditions, thus providing conclusive evidence not only that entrainment can serve as a form of joint action and social communication, but also that children under the age of 4 with limited theory of mind capabilities seemed to be taking part in the process of joint action. This, in turn, suggests that perhaps joint action in the context of music-making promotes the acquisition of such social abstract thinking skills, or at least provides a useful context through which these skills might be fostered. For these reasons, the present study is interested in investigating whether this same “social effect” – the increased rhythmic performance accuracy in a social context – is present in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), who exhibit marked social and often linguistic impairment and especially pronounced deficits in theory of mind capabilities (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985).
Another reason ASD is a disorder of interest in the context of social music making is that individuals with ASD have been shown to display markedly preserved musical processing and ability (despite the aforementioned marked social and communication impairments). For example, some of the earliest research into music cognition in individuals with ASD revealed a pronounced lack of impairment of, and even preference for, musical processing with respect to other types of auditory processing and other cognitive abilities (Applebaum, Egel, Koegel, & Imhoff, 1979; Thaut, 1987; Thaut, 1988); in addition, several neuroimaging studies have shown that brain functioning in subjects with ASD was more typical during music processing than during other types of auditory tasks, such as language processing (Čeponienė et al., 2003; Lai, Pantazatos, Schneider, & Hirsch, 2012; Nakamura, Toshima, & Takemura, 1986). These surprising results have implicated music as an area of therapeutic potential for individuals with ASD. However, it is still unclear whether the preserved musical processes in ASD are at all social in nature, or whether they arise instead from unique but isolated abilities (such as enhanced pitch memory).
Thus, the present study aims to examine whether the social effect for rhythmic sensorimotor synchronization accuracy is present in ASD. However, we plan to examine adults rather than children in order not only to test out the paradigm introduced by Kirschner & Tomasello (2009) on adult subjects, but also to compare ASD individuals to typically-developing control subjects (who are old enough to have advanced theory of mind capabilities). Under these conditions, the findings could lead in multiple directions, each of which would inform both the fields of music and psychology in different ways. The first potential finding is that individuals with ASD do not display this social effect, but control subjects do. This result supports the joint action theory for music-making, but suggests that the social aspects of music-making are not well-preserved in ASD. A second possibility is that results could show a lack of social effect for both ASD and control subjects. These findings would call into question the joint action theory of music-making, since even control adult subjects did not display the effect. A final possibility is that ASD and control subjects display a social effect. In this situation, results would support the joint action theory, but would also imply that this social aspect of music-making is preserved in individuals with ASD. A conclusion of this type would support the use of music as a social therapeutic device, and suggest that social abstract thinking is preserved in some contexts for individuals with ASD. Therefore, regardless of the findings, the present study would provide powerful implications for the fields of music and psychology, meriting further research.
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