At what age can babies imitate?

I get all sorts of emails these days. This week I received one from Jack Doherty, who describes himself charmingly as a ‘mature social work student’. He’s currently employed as a family worker in Northern Ireland – and he’s happy for me to use his name in this blog post.

Jack emailed me with a problem. He had tumbled unexpectedly into an academic debate. The social work lecture he was attending last week began with a quiz on the ages at which children can do various things. One of the abilities on the list was imitation. When he gave his suggested answer of ‘3 days old’, his classmates laughed at him.

I’ll let him take up the story there, lifting from the email exchange we shared:

The quiz was an enjoyable exercise that allowed much discussion amongst our student groups. When it came to the question “At what age should children be able to imitate or mimic?”, the answers varied from 5 months to 12 months. Every member of my own group agreed that the answer was 5 months – except me.

Y’see, I had been to a training in Omagh recently and listened to this very interesting Doctor Zeedyk.  So as spokesman for our group I said, “3 days old”.  Everyone in the group found this amusing – and the larger group of students even more so. Jokes were flying. I was embarrassed. This teasing continued the entire rest of the day!  People asked did I think my children were going to be scientists or brain surgeons or suchlike.

So then I thought maybe I had picked up the information from your seminar wrongly?  I spoke to my tutor and she said she wouldn’t dismiss the idea entirely, but would instead allow me the facility to prove my position with research, at next week’s lecture, if such research was available.  Then I emailed you.

Can you help? Can I get a copy of the clip you showed us of the newborn baby imitating? And if I didn’t get it wrong, and babies can imitate at birth, then why don’t more people know about the stuff discussed in your presentation? Its alarming, in a way. Can you help? Many many thanks.

Jack hadn’t picked me up wrongly. I had told him, and all those attending that training event, that babies could imitate at birth. Not at 3 days old, but at birth. The video clip I showed was of a baby 10 minutes old, imitating his daddy. His daddy was replicating some of the classic infant imitation research paradigms – sticking out tongues and opening mouths – as developed by researchers such as Olga Maratos, Andrew Meltzoff, Giannis Kugiumutzakis, Mikael Heimann, and Emese Nagy, amongst many others.

Neonatal imitation was a phenomenon announced to the world in 1977, in a scientific paper written by researchers Meltzoff and Moore. The claim that newborn babies might be able to imitate was so controversial at the time that it was published in one of the top scientific journals: Science (Vol 198, pgs. 75–78). The announcement generated a debate that has lasted for 40 years: Can neonates really imitate? Can all of them do it, or only some of them? What counts as ‘imitation’, anyway? How robust is the phenomenon? How should science explain this ability: as a reflex or a cognitive capacity or a perceptual system or as an emotional response? Is it a behavioural repetition of an action that a baby has observed in another face, or is it a form of communication, perhaps the earliest form of conversation possible?

These are fascinating questions. They lie at the heart of an animated scientific debate. I fear I can’t answer them all in one blog (especially as my team keeps telling me blogs are supposed to be brief!). What I can do is direct folk to the papers and books I suggested Jack might wish to have a read of, to present to his class next week as ‘proof of his position’. I’ll list those references at the end of this piece.

What I wanted to reflect on here was Jack’s final question to me: why don’t more people know about “the stuff” discussed in my lectures? And why did the suggestion that babies might imitate at only 3 days old provoke laughter from his peers? Why did this possibility seem outlandish to them, and why would they regard it as a wild over-estimate of babies’ intelligence?

I am grateful to Jack’s classmates for giving voice to our widespread, societal belief that babies are largely incompetent at birth. It wasn’t all that long ago that we thought they couldn’t see at birth, so it is not surprising that we still tend to think they can’t communicate or think or feel emotions very well. Piaget, the grand master of developmental theorists, concluded that babies couldn’t imitate until well into their first year. So from these standpoints, Jack’s suggestion that neonates might be able to imitate does seem amusingly outrageous.

But the point of the science I have been trying to disseminate is that it is now clear babies are competent at birth. They are much more competent than we have dreamed. When you combine the evidence from neuroscience and psychology, you realize that when you hold a baby in your arms, you are holding a brain born hungry to make meaning out of every single experience – including odd ones, like scientists and parents sticking their tongue out immediately upon arrival into the world.

Of course, that only seems ‘odd’ to us adults, who have been taught it is rude to stick your tongue out at someone. The baby doesn’t know that. The baby takes everything to be meaningful and acts on that assumption. Their brain becomes wired together on that physiological assumption – that everything holds meaning for them. So if a new person they’ve just met is sticking out their tongue, then it must mean something important! Maybe it even means “hello, welcome to the world, darling”? How is a newborn baby to know we humans usually say hello by waving?

We don’t regard the fact that a newborn baby has 10 fingers and 10 toes as odd. That’s because we see this as normal. We expect it. The reason that Jack’s classmates could see his answer as odd is because they don’t see communicative capacities as ‘normal’ for a baby. This is unexpected. In effect, our amused surprise tells us much more about ourselves than it tells us about our babies.

Jack tells me he plans to use our DVD – the connected baby – to help him prove his point in class next week. Sadly, the imitative exchange illustrated in the film, and on the DVD’s cover, is with a 5-week old. That’s way too old to support his contention that they can imitate at 3-days old! But maybe that footage will be convincing enough to help his classmates who thought even 5-months old was a bit young.

Jack also tells me he plans to begin his presentation with an apology. He says he will tell his peers he is sorry for leading them astray when he suggested that babies imitate at the age of 3 days. He should have said 10 minutes.

And he ended his last email to me by saying that he thinks it is “imperative that 50+ pending social workers know about this stuff. It will massively influence their practice, not to mention their personal lives”.

I agree, Jack. This stuff is imperative for all our lives, if we are to understand the depth of our own humanity.

If you are interested in reading more about the imitation debate, here are some useful books, publicly available scientific papers, and websites to get you started. Remember, we’ve had 40 years of debate about this in developmental psychology, so these really are only a start!

Vasu Reddy. How Infants Know Minds. 2008. Harvard University Press.)

Susan Hurley & Nick Chater. Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science. 2005. MIT Press.

Gavin Bremner. The nature of imitation by infants. In Infant Behaviour & Development. 2002. Vol 25, pgs. 65–67.

Emese Nagy. The newborn infant: A missing stage in developmental psychology. In Infant and Child Development. 2011. Vol 20, pgs. 3–19.

Andrew Meltzoff & Keith Moore. Explaining facial imitation: A theoretical model. In Early Development and Parenting. 1997. Vol 6, pgs. 179–192.

Jennifer Weeks. Current perspectives from evolutionary, mechanistic, and developmental research on infantile imitation. UScientia.

PsyBlog. Infants imitate others when only weeks old.

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