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Neonatal imitation depends on the time window used for analysis

Conference contribution
Authors Mikael Heimann
Tomas Tjus
Published in 18th European Conference on Developmental Psychology, August, 29 - September 1, Utrecht, Holland
Publication year 2017
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Links www.ecdp2017.nl/
Keywords Infancy, imitation
Subject categories Psychology (excluding Applied Psychology)


The observation that neonates sometimes seem to imitate facial gestures has led to a considerable debate within developmental psychology. Is what we observe really imitation or can the observations be explained elsewise? Those interpreting the evidence in favor of neonatal imitation often evoke a supramodal matching mechanism based on mirror neurons as an explanation to the infants’ capacity. In contrast, those opposed to the idea of an early imitative capacity have suggested that what looks like an imitative response is better explained as arousal, an innate releasing mechanism, a coincidental match or plainly as an artifact. These issues will be addressed anew based on observations of 33 newborn children (mean age: 47 hrs) observed for imitation of tongue protrusion and mouth opening. The method mimicked the procedure used by Meltzoff and Moore (1983), thus the stimuli was presented dynamically 3 x 20s interwoven with 3 x 20s long response periods when the presenter kept a still face. Imitation of tongue protrusion was evident immediately whereas mouth opening showed a protracted response, it took the infant 60 seconds to display an imitative response. Individual analysis showed that not all infants imitated both gestures but only four children consistently failed to imitate any of the gestures. Children were as likely to imitate when the stimuli was presented dynamically as during the response periods when the presenter kept a still face. The study provides renewed support for neonatal imitation but also complicates the picture. Imitation depends partly on the time window used in the analysis and also on the gesture presented. Infants reacted much faster to a presentation of tongue protrusion than to mouth opening. Finally, our findings underscore, as several has done before us (e.g. Simpson et al., 2014) that already neonates differ in the proneness to display imitation-like responses.

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