Brain Science and Imitation

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.

  • Control group
    a group in a study who does not receive the treatment. The group serves as a comparison for the experimental group.
    Deferred imitation
    reproducing a behavior after a delay from its initial demonstration
    Electroencephalography (EEG)
    a method used to measure electrical activity in the brain
    the ability to apply something learned in one situation to a new situation
    observing then reproducing, or copying, a behavior
    Mirror neurons
    a type of brain cell. Mirror neurons respond when an animal produces an action and when they observe another animal produce the same action.
    Theory of mind
    the awareness that other people can have different thoughts and feelings from one’s own
    Trial-and-error learning
    trying different actions until you perform the right one