For decades, there have been studies suggesting that human babies are capable of imitating facial gestures, hand gestures, facial expressions, or vocal sounds right from their first weeks of life after birth. But, based on new evidence, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 5, now say that just isn't so. After testing young infants repeatedly over their first couple of months, they found no evidence at all that very young infants are capable of imitation. If the youngest babies can't imitate, then how did so many studies suggest that they could?
The social world of newborns: Why babies are born to learn from our loving care
Yes, newborns spend most of their time sleeping and and eating. Taking care of a new baby can feel like a series of mechanical tasks. At birth, they are primed and ready for social input. Decades ago, this seemed doubtful. People assumed that newborn babies were empty-headed, passive lumps. Think of a baby as a computer than comes preloaded with software designed to detect patterns in the social environment. This software guides infant development, helping babies learn crucial lessons about people, communication, and the world at large.
Richard Cook does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. Imitation is a key part of the way humans learn. We can pick up new skills by observing others: how to tie shoelaces or hold a pencil in school, how to hit a tennis serve or swing a putter down the country club, or how to hunt and fish when left to fend in the wilderness. Throughout human history, the capacity to learn through imitation may have helped our species thrive.
MOTHERS have long been aware that by the time their babies are 3 months old, they readily respond to and imitate such facial expressions as smiles, frowns and pouts. Experiments at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Medical School have now shown that such imitation occurs within the first day or two of life. The tests were conducted on 74 newborn babies whose mean age was 36 hours. Each baby was held upright by the experimenter with one arm around its torso, the other hand supporting its head.