Parents of newborn babies love to exchange facial expressions and hand gestures with their offspring for hours, believing their child is learning from them. From recent research, it turns out the total opposite is more likely the case.
In the first few weeks following their birth, babies have a range of fascinating facial expressions, hand gestures, and even vocal sounds. Until recently, scientists, as well as parents, believed they were learning these from the adults themselves. It has for a long time been assumed that imitation starts almost immediately after birth, and this has always influenced theories about human social cognition and learning.
However, for years, scientists have been trying to understand the interaction between newborn babies and other people and have now come to the conclusion that it’s not the babies who are doing the mimicking, but the parents and grownups surrounding them.
— Hick Tse (@aceabas) May 6, 2016
A new study has been published in the journal Current Biology on the research that has been carried out, with the rather more complex title, “Comprehensive Longitudinal Study Challenges the Existence of Neonatal Imitation in Humans.”
The research was run by developmental psychologist Virginia Slaughter and her colleagues from the University of Queensland in Australia. In their study, they examined how 1, 3, 6, and 9-week-old infants respond to various gestures by adults.
The 106 infants in the study were shown a series of gestures by adults for 60 seconds, after which the scientists documented their responses. In each case, the team ensured that the infants were alert, quiet, and engaged during the sessions to avoid them getting confused by the various gestures.
Researchers used a series of facial expressions, gestures, sounds, and behaviors including mouth opening, finger pointing, happy expressions, tongue poking, and sounds like “mmm” and “eee.”
On completion of the study, researchers had found no evidence to suggest the babies imitated any of the gestures shown to them at any stage during the research.
According to Slaughter, older babies do appear to have the ability to mimic adults, but based on the findings from their research, it would seem that this skill is learned by the children as they continue to develop. In other words, it’s not something they have right from the start.
She continued by explaining that adults are the ones who mimic the gestures of the newborn babies, most likely as a way to teach their children how to behave.
According to ABC News, Slaughter said, “When we interact with babies…we want to bring them into our world.”
“We imitate them, and when we imitate them, this stimulates them to behave. We continue to imitate their behavior and this sets up a reciprocal interaction that looks like imitation and that ultimately becomes imitation but is driven by the parents or the adult’s behavior rather than the baby copying what somebody does perfectly from birth.”
By copying their babies’ behavior, adults are able to set up a form of reciprocal interaction which eventually leads to imitation. However, she said instead of the babies copying the actions of their parents, it is the adults who imitate their child’s behavior.
— Health at UQ (@UQHealth) May 5, 2016
The researchers say they expect their findings to create a major impact in the area of child development, with Cheryl Dissanayake, a developmental psychologist at La Trobe University, calling the new research a “game changer.”
“None of the studies to date have had this many children or this many gestures included within a strong experimental paradigm,” Dissanayake said, adding that the paper is the first of its kind to investigate imitation in newborn babies.
However, according to a report by Gizmodo, not everyone is convinced. Reportedly, Elizabeth Simpson from the University of Miami said many of the modeled actions are rare or absent in newborn infants.
“If an infant is unable to produce a given action, then of course she will be unable to imitate it. This isn’t a fair test,” she said.
Simpson went on to say she also believes researchers didn’t give the babies in the study enough time to respond.
While the debate is still not totally settled, parents will no doubt continue to make silly faces and goo-goo eyes at their babies, and the babies themselves will benefit from the attention, if nothing else.
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