IMITATION

Who’s aping whom?

The importance of learning by imitation, for both humans and animals, has been acknowledged for many years. But what is the origin of this imitative behaviour, which is so fundamental to cognitive and social development? American researchers claim that it is 100% innate, while European scientists from the EDICI project are not so sure.

In this test, the instructor dog (right) is forced to hold a ball in its mouth whilst carrying out a task. It pulls a handle with its paw to deliver food. The imitator dog (seated) has no ball and does not copy blindly. It will use its mouth because that is easier… © Friederike Range, University of Vienna
In this test, the instructor dog (right) is forced to hold a ball in its mouth whilst carrying out a task. It pulls a handle with its paw to deliver food. The imitator dog (seated) has no ball and does not copy blindly. It will use its mouth because that is easier… © Friederike Range, University of Vienna
On the right, the heads of two young marmosets perched on their mother’s back can be seen as they watch carefully how their father (in the foreground) feeds. © Vera Dell’mour, University of Vienna
On the right, the heads of two young marmosets perched on their mother’s back can be seen as they watch carefully how their father (in the foreground) feeds. © Vera Dell’mour, University of Vienna

"We have gathered together researchers from a variety of disciplines," explains Ludwig Huber, coordinator of the EDICI project (1). "Although it took time to find a common language, it did enable us to devise some highly original experiments." Specialists in ethology, evolutionary biology, neuro-physiology, neuro-psychology and psychology from four countries (AT, HU, DE, UK) developed tests on animals with some sort of proximity to humans (marmosets, which have a phylogenetic link; social birds, such as crows or parrots; and dogs). Research was also carried out on infants who had not yet acquired language, as well as healthy adults and neurological patients.

Be watchful, pay attention

One of the experiments, comparing attention levels among different species, showed that levels varied from one individual to another. "The ability to imitate is not innate. Every individual develops imitative ability by observing one's own actions and, first and foremost, through contacts with others." (2) For example, in experiments with marmosets, researchers observed that the parents invested a considerable amount of effort in encouraging their young to succeed in complex feeding tasks. Another type of experiment showed the subtle ways in which dogs can imitate (see illustration).

Researchers also compared the imitative potential of 14 month-old human babies, in the presence of either a passive adult or an active person (who showed and explained to the baby how things should be done, spoke to it, called it by name, pointed out objects, made sure that the baby was watching, and so on). The results were not surprising: when they are encouraged, children are naturally receptive to interpreting these social communication signs.

Imitation and awareness

Other research focused on the activation of the human brain. "Up to now, imitation was thought to be the most crucial ability for understanding the actions of others. A case of watch and imitate. EDICI research suggests that the most important thing is the brain's intentional control over what it imitates." This means that humans are not automated copying machines. Brain imaging reveals that the area of the brain that is active during imitation is the exact same area that is active when we are aware of what is happening to ourselves or others. "This could open up new possibilities for the treatment of neurological disorders like autism. Our results indicate a potential new avenue of research on this area of the brain associated with human representation of self and others and the ability to distinguish self from others. This research might well pave the way for the development of new treatments - for a variety of neurological impairments. It is all very encouraging."

Kirstine de Caritat

  1. The EDICI project (Evolution, development and intentional control of imitation) is part of the European Nest Pathfinder Initiative, ‘What it means to be human'.
    ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/nest/docs/4-nest-what-it-290507.pdf
  2. All quotes are from Ludwig Huber.

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