Brain Wiring Lets Babies Learn Through Imitation

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Since we weren’t able to talk during the first couple years of our lives, we had to learn how to make simple movements by watching our parents and imitating them. New research from Temple University and the University of Washington published in the journal PLOS ONE has revealed some of the neural mechanisms behind how babies learn through imitation.

“Babies are exquisitely careful people-watchers, and they’re primed to learn from others,” said study author Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “And now we see that when babies watch someone else, it activates their own brains. This study is a first step in understanding the neuroscience of how babies learn through imitation.”

In the study, the researchers found that babies’ brains showed specific activity patterns when an adult touched a toy with different parts of her body. When the 14-month-old babies watched a researcher’s hand touch a toy, the hand region of the child’s brain became active. When another group of infants saw a researcher touch the same toy with her foot, the foot area of the child’s brain lit up.

Because each body part has an identifiable section of neural ‘real estate’ in the brain, the scientists were able to clearly correlate brain activity to specific limbs. Previous research has found that a corresponding part of the adult brain activates while watching someone else use a specific body part, and the study team wondered if the same would be true for babies.

For the study, 70 infants were outfitted with electroencephalogram (EEG) caps, which have embedded sensors that detect brain activity in the various motor regions of the brain. While seated on a parent’s lap, each child observed an experimenter touching a toy on a low table. When the researcher pressed the toy’s clear plastic dome with her hand or foot, music sounded and confetti in the dome spun around. The researcher repeated the actions until the baby lost interest.

“Our findings show that when babies see others produce actions with a particular body part, their brains are activated in a corresponding way,” said Joni Saby, a psychology graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia. “This mapping may facilitate imitation and could play a role in the baby’s ability to then produce the same actions themselves.”

To copy what they see adults do, babies must first know which body part is needed to replicate an observed behavior. The new study indicated that babies’ brains are organized in a way that helps crack that code.

“The reason this is exciting is that it gives insight into a crucial aspect of imitation,” said study author Peter Marshall, an associate psychology professor at Temple University. “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.”

“The neural system of babies directly connects them to other people, which jump-starts imitation and social-emotional connectedness and bonding,” Meltzoff added. “Babies look at you and see themselves.”