Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Your Baby Isn’t Mimicking You

Researchers from The University of Queensland have recommended “modifying or abandoning” the theory that imitation is an inborn capacity in humans after studying more than 100 babies over their first 9 weeks of life. The team from the School of Psychology failed to find any evidence that newborns could copy facial gestures, hand movements or vocalisations during this time.

A total of 106 infants were presented with a variety of facial expressions, gestures or sounds created by both human and non-human models. The results, published in Current Biology, “provided evidence against the view that certain human behaviours are innate,” said Prof Virginia Slaughter.

“Analysis indicated infants were just as likely to produce gestures in response to other stimuli as to matching models. Human children in later stages do copy others’ actions, but the controversial assumption that this occurs from the moment of birth needs to be rethought.”

Prof Cecilia Heyes of the University of Oxford described the results as “powerful” and encouraged deeper thought about what separates humans from animals. “Many assume that we are ‘special’ because we inherit a set of complex cognitive mechanisms,” Heyes said.

“Imitation was one of the things that set us apart, along with language, mental time travel, cheater detection, face recognition and theory of mind. Now that we know imitation is not inborn there is renewed impetus for testing other hypotheses.

“At birth, human minds may only be different to those of other animals in subtle ways.”