Imitation and empathy in infancy
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Imitation and empathy in infancy Imitation and empathy in infancy Document Transcript

  • Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal Copyright © 2009 Romanian Association for Cognitive Science. All rights reserved. ISSN: 1224-8398 Volume XIII, No. 4 (December), 391-413 IMITATION AND EMPATHY IN INFANCY Susan S. JONES * Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University, Bloomington,USA ABSTRACT Numerous writers have described how imitation may lead to empathy: when an imitator performs the same behavior as another, she may experience, directly or through associated memories, the same cognitions and emotions as the person being imitated. Meltzoff’s recent description of newborn infants’ ability to recognize selfother equivalences in action – the ‘Like me’ framework – links imitation and empathy in this way. The theory builds on reports that infants can imitate from birth. However, evidence for newborn imitation is open to alternative interpretation. Other findings indicate that infants’ voluntary reproduction of actions of others requires substantial learning and emerges in the second year. Evidence of such learning is presented here, and implications for studying the origins of imitation and empathy are discussed. KEYWORDS: infancy, imitation, empathy, newborn. The potential for a close link between the ability to imitate others and the ability to empathize with others has been appreciated by researchers and theorists dating back at least to the late 19th century (see Iacoboni, 2009, for several early sources; see also Freud, 1921). ‘Empathy’ in their writings refers variously to the ability of one person to either understand or share the thoughts, motivations, intentions, or emotional experiences of another, without having had those private events explicitly communicated to them – for example, in language (Singer, 2006). The proposed role of imitation in producing empathy is to bring the person imitating into the same experiential context as the person being imitated, thus creating in the imitator a set of private experiences – understanding and/or emotional responses – that are either immediately evoked by that context or associated with that context in memory, and * Corresponding author: E-mail:
  • 392 S. S. Jones that match (or at least are thought to match) the private experiences of the person being imitated. Recent years have seen a rise in research studies and theoretical papers concerned with the origins of imitation and empathy in infancy (e.g., Meltzoff, 1995; 2002; 2005; 2007a; 2007b; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003; Singer, 2006), and with the neural underpinnings of these abilities in infants, children, and adults (e.g., Carr, Iacoboni, Dubeau, Mazziotta, & Lenzi, 2003; Dapretto, Davies, Pfeifer, Scott, Sigman, Bookheimer, & Iacoboni, 2006; de Waal, 2008; Decety & Jackson, 2004; Fogassi, Ferrari, Gesierich, Rozzi, Chersi, & Rizzolatti, 2005; Gallese, 2005; Gallese & Goldman, 1998; Gazzola, Aziz-Zadeh, & Keysers, 2006; Iacoboni, 2005; 2009; Iacoboni, Molnar-Szakacs, Gallese, Buccino, Mazziotta, & Rizzolatti, 2005; Iacoboni, Woods, Brass, Bekkering, Mazziotta, & Rizzolatti, 1999; Kaplan & Iacoboni, 2006; Pfeifer, Iacoboni, Mazziotta, & Dapretto, 2008; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). The purpose of this article is to examine one segment of this growing literature – that is, current thinking and evidence on the origins of imitation and empathy in infancy – and to identify the implications of this examination for future research on the origins of empathy. The origins of imitation and empathy in infancy: the ‘like me’ hypothesis The dominant theory of the origins of imitation, and the body of evidence that supports it, have been developed over many years by Meltzoff (e.g., 2002; 2005; 2007a; 2007b), and by Meltzoff and Moore (e.g., 1977; 1983; 1989; 1992; 1994; 1997). In Meltzoff’s recent formulations (e.g., Meltzoff, 2002; 2005; 2007a; 2007b; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003), it is clear that this account of the origins of imitation is also a theory of the origins of empathy. The source of empathy is described by the ‘Like me’ hypothesis (e.g., Meltzoff, 2005; 2007a; 2007b), which follows in the tradition of simulation theories of empathy (e.g., Gallese & Goldman, 1998). The ‘Like me’ hypothesis proposes that the infant from birth can experience others as ‘Like me’ through her own imitative acts. The hypothesis builds on evidence that infants are able to imitate from birth. By this account, newborn imitation attests to infants’ ability to recognize equivalences between their perceptions of their own actions and of the actions of others from birth (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003). As in older accounts, it is this perception of matching actions that links imitation to empathy. In Meltzoff and Decety’s (2003) words, “… infant imitation provides an innate foundation for social cognition. Imitation indicates that newborns, at some level of processing, no matter how primitive, can map actions of other people onto actions of their own body… When a human act is shown to a newborn, it may provide the first recognition experience, ‘something familiar! That seen event is like this felt event.’’ (p. 10). Meltzoff and Decety (2003) then account for empathy as follows: “…When infants see others acting ‘like me’, they project that others have the same mental experience Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 393 that is mapped to those behavioral states in the self …Infants imbue the acts of others with ‘felt meaning’ because others are intrinsically recognized as ‘like me’.” (p. 10). Elsewhere, Meltzoff (2007b, p. 28) summarizes the 3 components of the ‘Like me’ hypothesis as follows: 1. Action representation – intrinsic connection between the perception and production of acts, as embodied by infant imitation. 2. First person experience – Infants experience the regular relationship between their own acts and underlying mental states. 3. Understanding other minds – Others who act ‘like me’ have internal states ‘like me’. Again, the third component is clearly the achievement of one form of empathy. Thus, when Meltzoff writes that ‘The recognition of self-other equivalence is the foundation, not the outcome, of social cognition’ (Meltzoff, 2007a, p. 126), he is including empathy among the forms of social cognition that are built upon that foundation. The mechanism proposed for newborn imitation and the ‘Like me’ experience Research by Meltzoff and Moore (e.g., 1977; 1983; 1989; 1992; 1994; 1997) is the primary source of evidence that newborn infants will match a number of simple behaviors modeled for them by adults. Other researchers have also reported newborn behavioral matching in some cases (see Butterworth, 1999; Meltzoff, 2002; 2005 for reviews) and failures to replicate in others (e.g., Abravanel & Sigafoos, 1984; Anisfeld et al., 2001; Hayes & Watson, 1981; McKenzie & Over, 1983). There are many reasons why the behaviors of two individuals might match (e.g., Want & Harris, 2002). However, evidence of behavioral matching by newborn infants has been interpreted as evidence that newborns can imitate, and thus that imitation is an innate competency in humans. On the face of it, this interpretation is surprising, as the ability to imitate would seem to require amounts and kinds of knowledge and cognitive skill not otherwise evident in newborn behavior (Jones, 2009). In particular, it is not obvious how newborn infants could equate the behaviors of others with their own actions, in order to identify and produce actions that correspond to the perceived actions of others. This ‘correspondence’ problem (Nehaniv & Dautenhahn, 2002; Heyes, 2005) is especially difficult in view of the fact that the reports of newborns matching adult behaviors most commonly report matching of mouth opening and tongue protruding – two behaviors which infants cannot see themselves perform. Newborn infants can be assumed to have opened their mouths and moved their tongues often enough while in utero to have formed proprioceptive representations of those actions. However, they have had no parallel opportunity to form representations of the Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • 394 S. S. Jones visual input from another person’s mouth openings and tongue protrusions. Thus, if newborns in imitation experiments are indeed imitating mouth opening and tongue protruding, they must be able to match novel perceptual inputs in the visual mode to (perhaps) existing representations of their own actions in the proprioceptive mode. On what basis could these cross-modal matches be made? Meltzoff and Moore (1997) outlined, and Meltzoff (2002; 2005; 2007a; 2007b; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003) has since further elaborated, a model of a mechanism whereby such cross-modal matching could be accomplished. The model proposes that the newborn infant is innately equipped with a ‘supramodal act space’, in which acts of the self and other, though perceived in different modalities, are both represented in a common ‘supramodal’ code (see Iacoboni, 2009, for a similar construct, the ‘ideomotor framework’). It is because the newborn infant can form long-lasting representations of the actions of both self and other in a common code that those representations can be compared, and their similarities exploited in imitation. And it is the similarities between representations of actions of the self and of the other that cause the infant to experience the other person as ‘like me’, and to know that ‘…that seen event is like this felt event…The other acts like me and I can act like the other’ (Meltzoff, 2007a, p. 130). This means that ‘…there is something like a primitive body scheme that allows infants to code human acts – whether perceived or performed – in one common framework’ (Meltzoff, 2007b, p. 37). Empathy follows because, ‘…through everyday experience infants map the relation between their own bodily acts and their mental experiences… When infants see others acting ‘like me’, they project that others have the same mental experience that is mapped to those behavioural states in the self’ (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003, p.10). Thus, the theoretical mechanism formulated by Meltzoff to explain imitation in newborn infants is also a mechanism that proposes an origin for empathy in the infant’s ‘like me’ experience of others. By this account, the workings of the innate supramodal representational mechanism are already evident in newborn imitation, but the functionality of the mechanism is thought to be extended in development by specific learning. This extended functionality is particularly relevant to the development of empathy. For example, in one of Meltzoff’s examples (Meltzoff, 2007a), 14-month-old infants know that others cannot see with closed eyes, because they know the consequences of closing their own eyes, but do not know that others cannot see through a blindfold until they experience a blindfold themselves. However, although learning may elaborate the contexts in which it is useful, the infant’s ‘like me’ experience is proposed as a core primitive of the mechanism that underlies both imitation and empathy. Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 395 Is imitation as an inherited competency? The evidence The ‘Like me’ hypothesis extends the functionality of the mechanism originally proposed to account for newborn imitation to make it a basis for empathy and for other additional forms of social cognition. However, the evidence that supports the ‘Like me’ hypothesis is still limited to the evidence for newborn imitation. That evidence consists of at least 18 reports that newborn infants have matched an adult model’s behaviors (Meltzoff, 2005). To date, matching of some 7 different behaviors – mouth opening, pouting, tongue protruding, tongue protruding to the side, head-rotation, sequential finger movements, and index finger extension – has been reported. Most of these behaviors, however, have appeared in only one published study (Meltzoff, 2005); and in several cases, the methods used in that study have left the results open to alternative interpretations (see Anisfeld, 2005, Jones, 2009, for examples). Only mouth opening and tongue protruding have been matched by newborn infants in more than one experiment and in more than one laboratory. In the method typically employed in these studies, an adult models each behavior separately, in short (e.g., 20 sec) sequences that alternate with periods of inaction. The infants produce their behavioral matches mostly in the periods of model inaction. Thus, if the behavioral matches are imitation, then newborn infants can imitate behaviors retained in memory. These behavioral matching data, and the claim that they show delayed imitation by newborns based on perceptual representations in memory, have influenced research on imitation in developmental science, in primate research, in robotics, and also in neuroscience. The same claim now promises to play a prominent role in shaping research on the origins and nature of empathy. However, there is evidence to suggest that newborn behavioral matching is not imitation but is instead a product of arousal. This alternative was suggested by Anisfeld (1991; 1996) who twice looked closely and carefully at the entire body of empirical evidence for newborn imitation, and found that, of all of the behaviors that infants were said to imitate, only tongue protruding was reliably matched across different studies conducted by different researchers (Anisfeld, 1991; 1996; 2005). The finding that only one behavior was repeatedly matched weakened the argument made by Meltzoff and Moore (1997; 1983; Meltzoff, 2002; 2005) against an arousal explanation of their findings. Their argument required that infants selectively match at least 2 modeled behaviors. According to Meltzoff and Moore (1977; 1983; Meltzoff, 2002), generalized arousal would be expected to increase production of a range of infant behaviors indiscriminately. Thus, if infants increased their production of at least two specific behaviors, but increased each behavior only in the presence of an adult modeling the same behavior, then an explanation in terms of generalized arousal could be ruled out. Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • 396 S. S. Jones The results of Anisfeld’s (1991; 1996) analysis did not argue specifically for generalized arousal. However, by showing that infants reliably matched only one behavior – tongue protruding - Anisfeld raised the possibility that increased production of that specific behavior might be an effect of an increase in arousal. The same reasoning led Jones (1996; 2006) to investigate the normal place of tongue protruding in the infant’s behavioral repertoire. A search of the experimental literature together with subsequent experiments yielded evidence that infants ranging from newly born to 4 months of age increase their rates of tongue protruding in response to a variety of sensory experiences. These include a touch to the palm (Humphry, 1970), the sight of a hand-held pen or ball advancing or retreating (Jacobson, 1979), the sight of a box with a bright blue interior opening and closing (Legerstee, 1991), the sight of randomly flashing colored lights, the sight of dangling toys (Jones, 1996), and 20 second segments of rousing classical music (Jones, 2006). The range of stimuli shown to elicit increased rates of tongue protruding in young infants suggested two things: first, that tongue protruding is a general response of young infants to arousing stimuli in a variety of sensory modalities; and secondly, that the sight of a tongue protruding adult is just another of those arousing stimuli. Thus, Jones (1996; 2006; 2007; 2009a) proposed that the only reliable behavioral matching found in newborn infants – the matching of tongue protrusions – is not evidence of their ability to imitate, but is instead the coincidental matching of a sight that infants find arousing with a behavior that infants characteristically produce when aroused. The proposal that newborn infants cannot imitate – that is, that imitation is not an innate capacity in humans – receives further support from a range of neglected findings in the literature on imitation in infancy. Prominent among these are failures to find imitative abilities in older infants that are commensurate with those reportedly found in newborns. First, attempts to track the early development of imitation beyond the newborn period have found little evidence of any imitation at all in the first year. Fontaine (1984) found that, of the different behaviors reportedly imitated by newborns in Meltzoff and Moore (1977), only mouth opening and tongue protruding were matched by infants in the 2 to 6 month period, and that matching disappeared after 3 months. Heimann, Nelson, and Schaller (1989) found matching of only tongue protruding in newborns, and again, the matching of even this one response disappeared by 3 months. Pawlby (1977) studied imitation of all kinds of behavior in 8 infants from about 4 to 10 months of age. Pawlby found that parents matched their infants’ behaviors at high frequencies, while infants in this age range matched their parents’ behaviors so infrequently that those matches could be attributed to chance. The decline of newborn matching soon after the newborn period ends is mysterious if that early matching is imitation. However, if the newborn’s matching is due to elevated arousal, its decline is simple to explain. We need only propose Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 397 that stimuli that are interesting to newborns are less interesting to older infants, and/or that tongue protruding in response to interesting stimuli is replaced by more specific and functional responses (e.g., reaching and oral exploration – Jones, 1996). Both of these proposals seem likely to be true. In short, the empirical evidence for newborn imitation is not compelling. This means that the ‘Like me’ account of the origins of empathy in the newborn period is similarly lacking in empirical support. It remains to be seen whether the evidence on the nature of infant imitation when it does emerge is consistent with an empathic mechanism like the one which Meltzoff has proposed (2007a; Meltzoff & Moore, 1997). There have been a number of reports of imitation in infants as young as 6 months (e.g., Barr, Dowden & Hayne, 1996; Collie & Hayne, 1999). However, in these studies, infants’ reproduction of the outcomes of the model’s behavior is the measure of imitation. The question of whether the infants reproduce that specific behavior itself is not addressed. In such cases, the infants may be showing that they have learned from watching the model that a particular object has a particular interesting property or mechanism, which they then exploit [Tomasello (1998) calls this ‘emulation learning’]: but they are not showing that they can imitate the specific motor actions of another. The evidence on behavioral matching as infants increase in age suggests that infants may not be able to readily reproduce others’ actions until they are well into their second year. One group of studies has reported 14-month-old infants’ imitation after a 1-week interval of a model's action of turning on a light by tapping it with her forehead (Meltzoff, 1988; Gergely, Bekkering, & Kiraly, 2002), and more recently, at 12 months (Zmyj, Daum, & Aschersleben, 2009). However, these authors count just bending towards the light box without actually tapping it with the forehead as imitation. Infants might bend towards the light box for a non-imitative purpose – for example, to look into it. Because these authors do not report bending and tapping responses separately, it is not clear how many infants at these ages actually matched the model’s behavior. Abravanel, Levan-Goldschmidt, and Stevenson (1976) attempted to elicit imitation of 22 simple actions from infants up to 15 months of age. By 15 months, infants were typically reproducing only 8 of those 22 actions. Masur (1998; Masur & Rodemaker, 1999) studied imitation at 10, 13, 17, and 21 months. These infants’ matched the model less than one time on average during sessions at 10 and 13 months, but produced 4 or 5 matches on average at 17 and 21 months. Similarly, Nielsen and Dissanayake (2004) did not observe ‘synchronic imitation’ until 18 to 21 months of age. Jones (2007) carried out a cross-sectional study of elicited imitation in infants from 6 to 20 months of age. In this study, mothers modeled simple behaviors and actively encouraged their infants to imitate. The modeled behaviors included 2 from the newborn imitation literature – sequential finger movements and Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • 398 S. S. Jones tongue protruding (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977). Two different criteria were used to gauge whether imitation of each behavior was typical of infants at each age level. First, infants of a given age were credited with imitation if the proportion of infants who produced a target behavior while it was being modeled was significantly greater than the proportion who produced it spontaneously during a different segment of the experiment (i.e., when a different behavior was being modeled). Secondly, imitation of a target behavior was considered typical of a given age group if it was matched by more than 50% of infants at that age level. One behavior – making ‘Aaah’ sounds – met both of these criteria at 8 months. Three of the other 7 behaviors met the criteria in the last quarter of the first year. The final four behaviors met the criteria between 12 and 18 months. The behaviors matched at 12 months included ‘waving bye-bye’ and ‘clapping hands’, both of which are frequently tutored by parents. The two behaviors said to be imitated by newborns – sequential finger movements and tongue protrusions – met the criteria for imitation at 16 and 18 months of age, respectively (Jones, 2007). Taken together, these studies suggest that infants do not all begin to imitate at the same age; do not begin to imitate different kinds of behavior at the same time; and in general, do not easily or routinely imitate the behavior of others before the second or third quarter of their second year. This degree of variability in the developmental course of imitation strongly implicates individual experience as a controlling variable. Some existing data also point directly or indirectly to learning as a central factor in the emergence of imitation. Horne and Erjavec (2007) trained 1- to 2-year-old infants to match 4 behaviors modeled by the experimenters, then tested for infant matching of the 4 trained actions and 4 additional, untrained behaviors interspersed with the trained actions. None of the untrained behaviors was matched by the infants. The researchers then taught the infants to produce those 4 behaviors as responses to cues, to ensure that the behaviors were in the infants’ repertoires. The cues for these 4 behaviors, however, unlike the cues for the originally-trained behaviors, did not resemble the behaviors with which they were associated. After learning to produce these 4 behaviors on cue, the infants still did not imitate the behaviors when they were modeled by the experimenters. If the infants’ behavioral matching of the first 4 behaviors was imitation, it is difficult to explain why they subsequently did not also imitate the set of trained behaviors. However, if the infants’ behavioral matches were responses elicited by learned cues – that is, by visual cues from the model’s behavior – then the results are easily explained. The initial training of the 4 behaviors which infants subsequently did match established associations for the infants between the sight of the model performing the behavior and the proprioceptive feedback from the infants’ own performance of the same actions. Given such associations, the model’s behavior came to elicit a matching response from the infant. Note that there was no requirement and thus no evidence, that the infants knew that their cued responses matched the model’s behaviors. In contrast, Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 399 the other 4 behaviors were trained responses to unrelated behavioral cues, were therefore not associated with the sight of the model’s matching behavior, and for this reason could not be elicited by that behavior. Horne and Erjavec’s (2007) study provides an example of behavior in older infants that looks like imitation but consists in fact of cued responses. Their results raise the possibility that such learning may be common in, and contribute to the development of imitation. The documented high rates at which parents imitate their infants (e.g., Pawlby, 1977; Kokkinaki & Kugiumutzakis, 2000; Jones & Yoshida, 2009b) show that infants very frequently experience a close temporal coupling of sensory feedback from their own actions and sensory input from their parents’ immediate imitation of those actions. Thus, young infants appear to have ample opportunity to link ‘actions felt’ with ‘actions seen’ via the general mechanism of associative learning. It may be, then, that infants’ first voluntary behavioral matches occur because infants have established associations between the proprioceptive input from their own actions and the visual cues provided by their parents’ imitations of those (i.e., the infant’s own) actions. Thus, infants’ first behavioral matches may be cued responses and not imitations at all. Jones and Yoshida (2009b) report data suggesting that the experience of learning to associate specific actions with a model’s matching actions – without recognizing that the two behaviors do match – may indeed be an important component in the development of imitation in the second year. The evidence to support this proposal comes from a case study of one infant’s behavioral matching during interactions with her mother, recorded roughly every 12 weeks between the ages of 3 and 15 months. This infant did not match any of her mother’s behaviors until she was about 10 months of age. Then she began to produce matching responses, but only of behaviors that she had been producing spontaneously for some time, and that her parents had routinely imitated. For example, when the infant reached out with one hand, her mother would frequently say ‘Gimme five!‘ and reach out to lightly slap the infant’s palm with her own. Late in the first year, the infant began to respond to the sound cue ‘Gimme five!’ by raising her hand. She did not, however, respond to just the sight of her mother’s raised palm in the absence of the sound cue. Thus, it appeared that in this and other similar routines, behavioral matching occurred due to a learned association between the mother’s sound cue and the infant’s movement. The infant did not begin to match the mother’s silent actions with similar actions of her own for several more months. Even then, there was no independent evidence that she recognized the similarity between the action she saw and the action she felt. Rather, our observations suggest that she did not recognize that similarity right up to the end of the study. We have this impression because, although the infant was frequently shown new actions, she did not reproduce even one novel action the first time she saw it, right up to 15 months of age (Jones & Yoshida, 2009b). Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • 400 S. S. Jones Such observations raise the question of whether the performances of infants in Jones’ (2007) cross-sectional study of behavioral matching from 6 to 20 months of age contained any evidence across age levels that infants had to learn how to voluntarily reproduce the behaviors modeled for them. In particular, did infants produce many partial or inaccurate copies of the model’s actions? The ‘Like me’ hypothesis suggests that infants from birth should be able to accurately imitate simple behaviors as soon as those behaviors are in their repertoires, and thus represented in the supramodal act space. Each of the 8 behaviors in Jones (2007) – making ‘Aaah’ sounds; making ‘Eh-eh’ sounds; slapping the high chair table; clapping hands; waving ‘bye-bye’; sequential finger movements; touching the top of the head with one hand; and tongue protruding – was chosen for test because it is spontaneously produced by infants in this age range. Each of the 8 behaviors, by Meltzoff’s (2007a; Meltzoff & Moore, 1997) account, should therefore be represented in these infants’ supramodal act spaces, and available to be readily and accurately produced in response to the sight of a model performing the same behavior. Observations of partial or inaccurate infant copies of the model’s behaviors would suggest, conversely, that infants do not automatically match representations of their own and another person’s actions in a supramodal act space. In the present study, the frequencies with which infants at each age level produced behaviors that were either partial or inaccurate matches for 4 of the modeled behaviors were examined. The results are reported here because they are relevant to the developmental origins of empathy. The findings are relevant to the origins of empathy because they are relevant to the ‘Like me’ hypothesis. As reviewed above, the recent data on newborn tongue protruding suggest that infants do not imitate or empathize with others by means of a ‘Like me’ mechanism that is functional at birth. The present findings will speak to the possibility that a ‘Like me’ mechanism enables infants to imitate and empathize with others later in infancy. Evidence of the role of learning in infants’ imitation of simple acts In the study reported in Jones (2007), infants who failed to match the modeled behaviors sometimes produced what appeared to be ‘near-misses’. So, for example, the 14-month-old infant shown in Figure 1a watched his mother repeatedly touch the top of her head with one hand. He then raised his hand to about the right height, but bent his wrist in the wrong direction. Thus, he showed evidence that he had located the correct body parts with which to produce a match, but had not identified all of the correct movements to perform with those parts. Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 401 Figure 1 A 14-month-old infant whose mother is repeatedly touching the top of her head with her hand responds with a ‘near-miss’: he raises his arm and bends his wrist, but the wrist is bent in the wrong direction. This infant failed to accurately imitate his mother, but it is noteworthy that he tried. His incomplete reproduction of his mother’s movements shows that the motivation to imitate may emerge before the infant is able to accurately reproduce the actions he sees. Such a developmental sequence, if at all common, would seem to argue against the idea that imitation is accomplished automatically by the matching of seen behavior with already represented behavior in a ‘supramodal act space’. In the present study, we return to the data set from Jones (2007) to look at the frequencies and forms of ‘near-misses’ in 4 of the 8 behavioral categories, both to search for evidence on when the motivation to imitate appears to emerge, and to characterize the mechanism on which the development of successful imitation may depend. Specifically, we seek evidence on the quality of infants’ matches to models’ actions. Close matches between infants’ and models’ actions at the onset of imitation will suggest that those matches are made by a mechanism that automatically matches the model’s actions with behavioral plans for those actions represented in the infant’s supramodal act space. Close matches, therefore, will provide empirical support for the idea that infants’ and models’ behaviors are matched by the kind of ‘Like me’ mechanism that Meltzoff (2007a) describes. Conversely, partial and inaccurate copies of the modeled behaviors will suggest that such automatic matches do not take place. Instead, a finding that incomplete Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • 402 S. S. Jones matches are common at specific age levels will suggest that infants of that age either cannot yet accurately process (analyze, recognize, and remember) the actions of others, or cannot yet adequately identify, choose, and/or control the movements of their own body parts. METHOD Details of the methods used to collect the data for this study can be found in Jones (2007). Briefly, 162 infants with age levels at 2-month intervals from 6 to 20 months of age (20-21 infants at each age level) were shown 4 behaviors by a parent and encouraged with smiles and language (e.g., ‘Your turn! You do it!’) to reproduce each behavior. Parents followed a video of a model visible behind their infants to regulate their presentations of the behaviors. The pattern was 10 seconds of the target behavior then 10 seconds of rest repeated for up to 3 minutes for each behavior. (In order to help the youngest infants to complete the experiment, mothers were instructed to stop modeling a behavior that their infant had clearly reproduced). Half of the behaviors made sounds and half were silent; half would be visible to the infant if he produced them, half would not be visible. In the present study, we examined the behavior of infants at all age levels during the modeling of 4 target behaviors – producing a reduplicative syllable, ‘eheh’; clapping hands; touching the top of the head with one hand; and tongue protruding. We looked for infant actions that did not accurately reproduce the target behaviors, but that involved the same body parts or body regions as the 4 target behaviors. These measures were taken throughout the experiment – that is, both while infants watched the target behavior being modeled, and also while each of the other 3 behaviors was being modeled. The idea was to compare infants’ production of ‘near-misses’ in the presence and in the absence of models of the target behavior. For the target behavior Eh-eh, the model repeated the two syllables in 2 sec, rested 1 sec, then repeated this sequence for a total of 10 sec. Infant behaviors coded, in descending order of similarity to the target, were: 1) Two iterations of the same syllable, perceived as similar to Eh-eh, without an intervening pause; 2) Two iterations of a syllable unlike Eh, without an intervening pause; 3) Vocalization of one syllable, perceived as similar to Eh; and 4) Vocalization of one syllable, perceived as unlike Eh. For Clap Hands, the model opposed the palms of her hands in 1 sec, making a soft clapping sound, moved her hands to about 30 cm apart in 1 sec, then repeated this sequence for a total of 10 sec. Infant behaviors coded, in descending order of similarity to the target, were: 1) Infant opposes some part of surfaces of two hands; 2) Infant moves two hands in horizontal plane, without touching; and 3) Infant raises and extends two hands. For Touch Head, the model raised one hand and touched the top of her head in 1 sec, and dropped her hand to Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 403 waist height in 1 sec. Infant behaviors coded were 1) Infant’s one hand touches head anywhere above ears; 2) Infant’s two hands touch some part of head; 3) infant raises both hands. For Tongue Protruding, the model protruded his or her tongue between closed lips. Infant behaviors coded were: 1) protrudes tongue; 2) moves tongue inside an open mouth; 3) opens mouth, no visible tongue movements. Each infant was categorized by his or her closest approximation to the target behavior, and the proportion of infants in each ‘closest approximation’ category in each behavior condition was calculated for each age level. 1 0.8 0.6 0.4 0.2 0 6 6/8 8/10 10 /1 212 /1 414 /1 616 /1 818 /2 0 20 "Eh -eh " clap h an d s H ea d 1 ha nd To ng u e pro t. Figure 2 Proportions of infants matching each of 4 modeled behaviors at each 2 month interval from 6 to 20 months. See text for description of measured behaviors. Curves are smoothed across pairs of successive age groups. Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 404 V o c a l "E h -e h " 1 0 .8 0 .6 0 .4 0 .2 0 6 6 /8 8 /1 0 1 0 /1 2 1 2 /1 4 1 4 / 1 6 1 6 / 1 8 1 8 /2 0 1 w rong syl 2 w rong syl 20 1 "eh" " E h -e h " C la p H a n d s 1 0 .8 0 .6 0 .4 0 .2 0 6 6 /8 8 /1 0 1 0 /1 2 1 2 /1 4 1 4 /1 6 1 6 /1 8 1 8 /2 0 20 E x t e n d a rm s H o riz m o v 't c la p h a n d s Touch Top of H ead 1 0 .8 0 .6 0 .4 0 .2 0 6 6 /8 8 /1 0 1 0 /1 2 1 2 /1 4 1 4 /1 6 1 6 /1 8 1 8 /2 0 R a is e a rm ( s ) H ead 2 h and s H ead 1 h and Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413 20
  • S. S. Jones 405 T o n g u e P r o tr u s io n 1 0 .8 0 .6 0 .4 0 .2 0 6 6 /8 8 /1 0 1 0 /1 2 1 2 /1 4 1 4 /1 6 1 6 /1 8 1 8 /2 0 20 O p e n m o u th M o v e to n g u e T o n g u e p r o t. Figure 3 Proportions of infants matching each of 4 behaviors modeled by their mothers, or producing different kinds of ‘near-misses’, at ages 6 to 20 months. Some proportions at some age levels do not sum to 1 because some infants did not produce behaviors related to the modeled behavior. RESULTS Figure 2 shows the developmental course of infants’ matching of each of the 4 behaviors, as reported in Jones (2007). Each point on the graph represents the difference between the proportion of infants that produced the target behavior while watching modeling of that behavior, and the maximum proportion of infants producing that same behavior in the absence of a model (i.e., while any of the other behaviors was being modeled). All curves are smoothed over pairs of age levels in order to better reveal the developmental trend. The first thing to notice in Figure 2 is that the developmental trends for reproduction of the 4 behaviors are not the same. Thus, the different trends do not appear to reflect the development of a single, unified ability to imitate. There is, however, a common accelerated increase in the proportions of infants matching all 4 behaviors at the 18-20 month age level. This suggests that something changes around this age that makes it easier for infants to imitate a broad range of behaviors. Figure 3 shows each of these developmental trends separately, with the probabilities that infants will produce each ‘near-miss’ behavior at each age level. Note that the probabilities of producing a match or a near-miss at each age level do Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 406 not sum to 1: this is because there were small numbers of infants at each age level who did none of the behaviors coded. Vocal ‘Eh-eh’ The proportions of infants at each age level who produced some relevant vocal behavior varied substantially (range = .53 - .78) until 12-14 months. Before this age level, the target double-vowel sound was matched by only 1/5 to ¼ of the infants. As many or more infants produced either 1 similar vowel sound or 2 sounds that did not resemble the target sound. At the 12-14 month age level, the proportions of infants producing relevant sounds in response to the model began to steadily increase with age. The increase was largely in the numbers of infants who produced the target double-vowel sound. As accurate matches increased, each of the near-miss behaviors continued to be produced by about the same proportions of infants at each age level. At 20 months, every one of the tested infants produced vocalizations in response to the model’s vocalizations. However, even at this age only about 60% produced a good match. Twenty-month-old infants, of course, are usually speaking. In fact, the typical 20-month-old has well over 100 words in his or her productive vocabulary (Fenson et al., 2003). Thus, the 20-month-olds in this study were almost surely capable of producing the modeled vocalizations. The failure of many to do so underlines the difference between imitation and spontaneous production: imitation, unlike spontaneous production, requires (at minimum) the motivation to match; the ability to analyze the modeled behavior; and the ability to identify and voluntarily produce a matching behavior. Clap hands ‘Clap hands’ is widely taught by caretakers. Perhaps for this reason, ‘clap hands’ showed the lowest levels of near-miss behaviors across age levels. At each age level, roughly the same small proportions of infants either just raised their arms or raised their arms and then moved them in a horizontal plane without opposing their hands. The numbers of infants producing these near-misses increased steadily with age, however, so that, although this was a cross-sectional study, the results suggested that the increase in the proportion of infants doing ‘clap hands’ at each age level might be largely made up of infants who at the previous age level would have produced near-misses. Touch top of head with one hand The first evidence of infants attempting to match this behavior occurred in the 1012 month age range. Initially, infants were most likely to just raise their arms in response to the model, suggesting that they had at least identified the general Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 407 region of the body in which the model’s action took place. A smaller number did better, touching their heads with either two hands or one. Matching of this behavior began to increase markedly at the 16-18 month level. At this age level, no infants simply raised their arms in response to the model’s action. Instead, the near-misses were the more accurate touches with 2 hands instead of 1. By 20 months, about ¾ of the infants matched the head touch with one hand, and no infants produced inaccurate attempts. Tongue Protrusion The findings for ‘tongue protrusion’ were similar to those for ‘touch top of head’. The first evidence that a small proportion of infants could match the model’s tongue protrusions also appeared in the 10-12 month age range. As shown in Figure 3, this onset was preceded by evidence of mouth opening by a small number of infants in response to the tongue protruding model. This behavior may have indicated that a few infants were able to identify the right region of the body for the action. From this age level through the 14-16 month level, only about 20% of infants protruded their tongues in response to the model. The proportion of infants matching tongue protruding began to rise quickly at the 16-18 month level. At the same ages, a substantial minority of infants were responding with tongue movements inside the mouth, suggesting that they had found the right muscle to move. By 20 months, as with touching the top of the head, tongue protruding was observed in about ¾ of the infants, and no infants produced inaccurate attempts. Although not prominent, there were some indications in the results of infants’ progressive learning of body parts and body mappings. So, for example, in ‘clap hands’, infants appeared first to identify the right limbs to move, then the right direction of movement. In ‘touch top of head’, infants first identified the right limbs and the upward direction, then the touch to the head, and finally the movement of only one arm. In ‘tongue protrusion,’ infants appeared to find the right region – the mouth – for movement, then to locate the right muscle – the tongue – to move, and finally the right directional movement of the tongue. Again, the near-miss behaviors were each produced by a minority of infants, so no strong inferences can be made. However, these patterns hint that, in general, infants are able to identify the general areas of their own bodies that map to the areas involved in the model’s actions some months before they are able to reproduce the specifics of the action itself. SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION As reported in Jones (2007), the data from this study of behavioral matching by 6to 20- month-old infants showed that infants do not typically begin to imitate even simple modeled behaviors until the beginning of their second year; and that they Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 408 may not be able to easily imitate a range of modeled behaviors until about 1 ½ years of age. What the present analysis adds to those conclusions is evidence that, when infants do begin to imitate, many produce inaccurate approximations of the modeled behaviors. There is also some modest evidence that the infants’ nearmisses change with age in ways that suggest that they are learning to identify, first, the right part of the body to move, and secondly, the right way in which to move that part, to reproduce the model’s actions. There is provision for initially inaccurate newborn imitation in the ‘Like me’ model for imitation and empathy (Meltzoff, 2007a; Meltzoff & Moore, 1997). In that model, visual input specifying a modeled behavior is matched with a program for the same behavior in a ‘supramodal act space’ in the newborn’s mind. However, Meltzoff’s model also provides a mechanism by which the mismatch should be detected by the infant, and by which the mismatching behavior should be repeated with increasing accuracy. There was no evidence in the present study that older infants who produced ‘near-misses’ either detected a mismatch or improved their matching within the 3 min allotted. Instead, the present data suggest that infants’ initially inaccurate copies of modeled behaviors become more accurate over a period of several months. This prolonged period of correction is consistent with the proposal that infants slowly learn about their own bodies and actions, about the bodies and actions of others, and about how each maps onto the other – and that this learning is a prerequisite for the ability to imitate. The infants’ production of near-miss behaviors in the present study also suggests that infants may have been motivated to imitate weeks or months before they were able to accurately reproduce the models’ behaviors. It remains for future research to determine whether the development of accessible body knowledge and body mapping is the limiting factor in the emergence of imitative behavior, or whether other cognitive components of imitation are also lacking into the second year. GENERAL DISCUSSION Imitation has long been recognized as a form of behavior that may lead to empathic understanding of others. It is possible that overt or more often cognitively simulated imitation is a common or even necessary condition for empathic responding (e.g., Gallese & Goldman, 1998). Thus, it is not surprising that researchers would seek to link the developmental origins of empathy to the origins of imitation. Meltzoff’s ‘Like me’ hypothesis (2002; 2005; 2007a; 2007b) proposes that imitation is an innate capacity observed in humans from birth, and that innate imitation is the foundation for the development of empathy. The ‘Like me’ hypothesis, as its name implies, proposes that newborn infants are already equipped to appreciate the similarity between themselves and others which is the Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
  • S. S. Jones 409 foundation of empathy. However, there is evidence that the ability to imitate is not inborn, which is also evidence against the proposal that empathy begins at birth. The central difficulty in explaining imitation at any age and in any species is the correspondence problem (Nehaniv & Dautenhahn, 2002): how does one organism identify and then reproduce the organized movements of another? Meltzoff’s (2005; 2007a, 2007b) hypothesis that actions seen and actions done are intrinsically intertwined and represented in the same ‘supramodal act space’ is an attempt to solve the correspondence problem – or rather, to eliminate it. The proposed supramodal act space bypasses the problem of the developmental origins of the knowledge and skills needed to imitate by innately embodying both. Such a mechanism, if real, would provide a comparatively simple way to explain imitation. And it is true that a simple explanation of imitation – one that relies on inherited body knowledge, body mapping, and automatic action matching processes – is necessary to explain newborn imitation. Such an explanation is not required, however, if newborn infants do not imitate. The evidence that newborn infants do imitate is limited and consists largely of demonstrations that infants match a model’s behavior (Meltzoff, 2002; 2005; Jones, 2009). These demonstrations do show that infants match at least one modeled behavior (Anisfeld, 1991; 1996; Jones, 1996; 2006; 2009). They do not, however, show that infants selectively match a range of modeled behaviors; and therefore, they do not show that the limited matching that does occur is imitation. The evidence that newborns do not imitate is necessarily indirect (research can rarely show that a phenomenon does not exist). It consists first of evidence that the data evoked to support the imitation interpretation of newborn behavioral matching can also be interpreted in terms of the way in which very young infants typically behave with increases in arousal (Anisfeld, 1996; Jones, 1996; 2006). It consists secondly of a growing body of evidence that infants well beyond the newborn period do not imitate the behaviors that newborns are said to imitate, and in fact may not typically be able to voluntarily reproduce the actions of others (in contrast to the effects of the actions of others) for as much as a year after birth (Jones, 2009). This evidence indicates that we may need a different solution to the correspondence problem for human infants. The evidence from the study reported here suggests that that answer will be a complex narrative involving, as developmental histories usually do, an extended course of epigenetic interplay between biologically-based structures and propensities, and a range of different kinds of experience (e.g., Gottlieb, 2007; Lehrman, 1953; Thelen & Smith, 1994). The same kind of account is likely to be required to explain the development of empathy. The ability to imitate, regardless of its origins, is likely to play the role ascribed to it by Meltzoff (2007a) and others (e.g., Gallese, 2005; Iacoboni, 2009) in the achievement of empathic understanding and emotional experience in infants and young children. However, just as imitation is not likely to Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (2009) 391-413
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