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Do We Learn 'At First' By Imitation?

A new study finds that newborns don't imitate others.

Aristotle wrote that imitation is natural to human beings from childhood, and he observed that this is one of our advantages over the so-called lower animals.

A human being is "the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation," he said.

In the last two millennia, we have learned very little that would contradict Aristotle's believe that imitation — the ability to see others and do what they do — is critical for human learning and development. But is it true that we learn "at first" by imitation?

Notice, it is one thing to say that humans learn by imitation, and another to say that imitation is innate, an in-born capacity that is triggered at birth. For the last 30 years, or so, this innateness hypothesis has been widely accepted on the strength of experimental evidence supposedly showing that neonates reliably mimic facial gestures (such as sticking out the tongue). The discovery in the '90s of cells in the frontal lobes of monkeys that fire not only when an animal performs an action, but also when it witnesses that very action being performed by another — so-called "mirror neurons" — seemed, to many, to give a clue to the mechanisms underlying our in-born capacity to imitate.

One prominent cognitive scientist went so far as to say that mirror neurons are likely to do for psychology what DNA did for biology; they are a plausible candidate for the neural machinery that lets us, from the moment of birth, perceive and understand each other and that, in turn, makes human relationships and human society possible. And this, despite the fact that there is no direct evidence of the existence of these cells in human beings. (For more on mirror neurons and what they explain or don't explain, here's a recording of a debate last year at NYU.)

And, so, it can only be considered an event of significance that, according to a study published this month in Current Biology, there is no evidence of imitation on the part of children in the first 9 weeks of life. More than 100 children were tested at weeks 1, 3, 6 and 9, using as models facial gestures, hand gestures and, as controls, inanimate objects; that is, each child was presented with nine natural face or hand gestures and then with two non-social things. There was no indication whatsoever that children were more likely to perform the movement or make the expression they were witnessing than they were any other movement.

Which is, of course, not to deny the importance of imitation for human learning, development and social life. But any theory that takes the innateness hypothesis for granted — such as the belief in an inborn imitation module realized in the mirror neuron system — can be considered undermined. In the words of the authors: "Our results undermine the idea of an innate imitation module and suggest that earlier studies reporting neonatal imitation were methodologically limited."

The authors of the study — Janine Oostenbroek, Thomas Suddendorf, Mark Nielsen, Jonathan Redshaw, Siobhan Kennedy-Costantini, Jacqueline Davis, Sally Clark, Virginia Slaughter — note that it is more likely that children learn to imitate or, at least, that they acquire the ability to do so, at something more like 6 months of age, as the great Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) had proposed.

As is typically the case with good science, there are still many questions unanswered. The fact that kids acquire the ability to imitate does not mean that they don't acquire this ability by nature, just as many would argue that although kids aren't born with the ability to talk, they are born with the ability to learn to talk. This would indicate that the opposition of learned vs. innate is perhaps too crude to help us understand our ability to make sense of each other.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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