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Children Look at You & Experience Themselves

Updated: Nov 30, 2022


Mimicking Behavior

By Dustin Rhodes -

It has been said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” And when it comes to your baby, this saying has a new meaning. It’s a widely accepted notion when children imitate, they develop a wide range of abilities, everything from language to social skills. There’s also some very interesting research being conducted on how babies learn. When you think about the confusing mess of ‘sensory data’ they are bombarded with, it’s a wonder any learning can take place. Keep this in mind while reading this article, however basic it may seem, for babies intuitively know how to copy what they see adults do. In other words, they must first know whether it’s their hand, foot, mouth, or another body part that is needed to mirror the behavior observed.

During the last decade, researchers have begun to understand how and why babies and young children not only learn quickly but also very accurately. To put it more accurately, these young humans have an extraordinary ability to learn from statistical patterns. What!?

In 1996 at the University of Rochester, this ability was first demonstrated in studies of the sound patterns of language. Researchers played sequences of syllables with statistical regularities to some eight­month-old babies. For example, “bi” might follow “ro” only one-third of the time, or “da” might always follow “bi.” Then they played the babies new sequences of sounds that either followed these patterns or didn’t follow them. Babies listened longer to the statistically unusual strings. Recent studies show babies can detect statistical patterns of musical tones and visual scenes and more abstract grammatical patterns. So what does this mean to me?

Stay with me here, I’ll get to that in a minute. Apparently, babies can even understand the relationship between a statistical sample and a population. What the!? In a 2008 study at the University of California, Berkeley, eight-month-old babies were shown a box full of mixed-up Ping-Pong balls: perhaps 80 percent white and 20 percent red. The experimenter would then take out five balls, seemingly at random. The babies were more surprised (that is, they looked longer and more intently at the scene) when the experimenter pulled four red balls and one white one out of the box-an improbable outcome as opposed to when the experimenter pulled out four white balls and one red one. This outcome would be more likely according to statistical models. Of course, there might be some projection going on here, but let’s allow the scientific method to work, shall we?

Detecting statistical patterns was the first step in the researcher’s discovery. Even more interesting, children (like scientists) use those statistics to draw conclusions about the world. In a version of the Ping­Pong ball study, now with 20-month-old babies, and using toy green frogs and yellow ducks, the experimenter would take five toys from the box and then ask the child to give them a toy from those chosen. The children showed no preference between the colors if the experimenter had taken mostly green frogs from the box of mostly green toys. But, the children gave her a duck if she had taken mostly ducks from the box-apparently the children thought her statistically unlikely selection meant that she was not acting randomly and that she preferred yellow ducks. Hmmm.

Brain research has determined there are special cells called ‘mirror neurons.’ When humans watch someone do something, our mirror neurons become active in the brain as if we ourselves were engaging in the same activity we are observing. This suggests that learning consists of making connections not only in a figurative way (as we assemble sequences of behavior) but also in a literal way, as observation of a behavior forges the same neural connections made from practicing that behavior. Hypothetically speaking, say while driving, you never give other drivers the finger when your spouse is in the car, but you might slip up and do it when the kids are in the back seat. Now imagine the little tikes strapped into their car seats, flipping off other drivers every time they see you do it. Thanks to those pesky ‘mirror neurons,’ they’re getting lots of bird-flipping practice in the back seat without moving a muscle. So remember this when your spouse asks you: “I wonder where they learned that!?”

Just remember this, you probably didn’t teach your little darling how to hold a toy phone to their ear or guide a spoon into their mouth either. Oh yea, right... Here’s a little bit more on that topic.

Babies’ brains showed specific activation patterns when an adult performed a task with different parts of their body. For instance, when 14-month-old babies simply watched an adult use her hand to touch a toy, the hand area of the baby’s brain lit up. When another group of infants watched an adult touch the toy using only her foot, the foot area of the baby’s brain showed more activity. OK, I’m starting to get this. This study shows babies’ brains are organized in a ‘somatotopic’ way which helps crack the interpersonal code. The connection between doing and seeing actions maps hand to hand, foot to foot, all before they can name those body parts through language. To quote a researcher: “To imitate the action of another person, babies first need to register what body part the other person used. Our findings suggest that babies do this in a particular way by mapping the actions of the other person onto their own body.”

Bottom Line- Babies are exquisitely careful people-watchers, and they’re primed to learn from others, so research is beginning to show us when babies watch someone else, it activates their own brains. These studies are just the first step in understanding the neuroscience of how babies learn through imitation.

To put it another way, ‘Small children look at you and experience themselves.‘

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