Did you know newborns can the imitate facial expressions they see??
(And why that’s interesting….)
In 1979 two developmental scientists published research reporting that two-week-old infants can imitate facial gestures such as sticking out their tongues, making a big open O-shape with their mouths and raising their eyebrows. It was an amazing report. Within three years it was replicated and discovered that babies can in fact imitate within minutes of birth, as soon as anyone (parent or scientist) presents a facial display for them to copy.
This research took the developmental psychology and psycholinguistic world by storm. It implied that newborns can notice, remember, cognitively match a set of facial features from another to their own faces and deliberately match the display. And they did all this without ever observing themselves in a mirror nor having ever before seen another human face. It suggested neonates have a great deal of cognitive ability and intentionality. That’s what I taught my students during the 1990s and what I told parents in discussing ways to enjoy newborns.
The behavior is very real, but our explanation for it was probably wrong. We now largely attribute infant imitation to mirror neurons. Sensory and motor areas of the brain have neurons that are responsible, in various ways, for perception and action. In addition, these areas have some neurons called “mirror neurons,” something first discovered and described around the turn of the millennium. Mirror neurons fire when a person perceives an action or behavior performed by someone else. That shiver you feel when you see someone cut himself is caused in part by mirror neurons. The emotional pain you feel when someone is sad may also involve mirror neurons, in companion with information from your own personal experiences with sadness.
Back to newborns. The remarkable capacity for imitation probably isn’t some high level cognitive process, but rather a response triggered by the firing of mirror neurons. Yet, it is still incredibly interesting and important.
Why it matters
Facial imitation in babies serves several adaptive functions. That is, it supports development in a number of important ways. Observing others making facial displays captivates babies and draws them into social interaction. It also helps nurture the bond parents feel toward their infant. You may or may not have actually noticed your baby responding to you in this way, but you will have probably felt a kind of synchrony between yourself and your newborn when you gaze at one another and exchange facial gestures. So the newborn’s amazing capacity to imitate facial displays draws them into the social world and also strengthens a parent’s commitment to tend to them.
Some researchers believe mirror neurons contribute to the development of empathy. When we experience a mirror response of what others experience, it lays a foundation for recognizing and responding to the needs and concerns of others. Thus, mirror responses and more sophisticated cognitive and social responses may combine to create feelings of empathy. Mirror neurons, by the way, are not unique to humans, but are found in the cortex of most primates and many other animals, especially those with advanced social behaviors, such as elephants.
How to enjoy imitation games with your newborn
Choose a time when your infant is in an active awake state (awake, alert and comfortable, but not occupied with vigorous motor activity)
Bring your face within your infant’s focal range, about 12 inches in front of his face. (You may enjoy holding your infant or prefer to let your baby rest in a little infant seat.)
Look into your baby’s eyes and slowly stick out your tongue, leaving it out for little while so your baby can take it in. Give your baby a chance to gather himself and see if he sticks out his own tongue. If he doesn’t, try sticking out your tongue again. Keep things gentle and slow. It takes a while for babies to process information and then coordinate their own behavior. You may enjoy trying other facial displays — the open O mouth or raising your eyebrows in an exaggerated way often elicit imitations. Experiment.
Remember, babies respond in their own time. If your newborn doesn’t imitate you, try again another day. And enjoy making sounds to your baby and holding up objects for her to look at and track as you slowly move them near her face. There are many ways to enjoy social interactions with newborns.
Here’s a link to a video that shows a 10-minute-old infant imitating his father.