Advances in neuroscience allow us to ask questions about what is going on in the infant brain when infants watch and imitate actions. You may have heard about the discovery of mirror neurons. These brain cells respond when an animal produces an action, such as picking up a peanut, but also when the animal observes someone else producing the same action. Scientists are racing to find out more about the possibility of mirror neurons in the baby’s brain because it will teach us about early imitation.
One way to measure brain activity during imitation is to use an Electroencephalography or EEG cap. The EEG cap measures electrical activity in the infant’s brain as she watches an adult perform an action, like pushing a button on a box.
Researchers found a specific change in infants’ brain activity when infants pushed the button with their own fingers and when they watched the adult push the button. This is an exciting new discovery. It’s as though the infant brain is saying “hey you’re like me, I can do that too.” This research is in the early stages. Scientists are just beginning to discover the brain mechanisms supporting infant imitation, babies’ feelings of connectedness to others, and the emergence of empathy.