Monday, May 4, 2015
What's the Big Deal About Imitation?
For the young child, imitation is the primary learning modality. So many elements of our human-ness are developed in the early years and they are developed through a process of imitation. Among these learned skills are walking, speaking, and methods for dealing with stress and challenges. Humans only learn to walk and speak by copying other human beings! And we develop our habits of dealing with challenging situations and our communication habits, by copying. These habits are firmly entrenched by age three or earlier.
A key neurological element involved in imitation is mirror neurons These neurons 'fire' both when an child acts and when the child observes an action performed by another. It is the same with any age - mirror neurons are engaged when we receive through our senses information (sights, sounds, etc.) about what someone else is doing. They stimulate ‘motor’ neurons as if we were doing the moving or speaking. Mirror neurons are important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation.
With human beings, imitation is of much greater significance than other creatures of the earth. A newborn horse will stand up within the first hour after its birth, can trot and canter within hours, and most can gallop by the next day, even if you remove all other horses from the foal’s environment. The foal will also “speak” like a horse without other horses around to imitate.
A human being will never learn to stand, walk or speak like a human unless there are human walkers and speakers to imitate. These three human capacities of walking, speaking and thinking are developed by imitation and are founded on each other.
At first, the baby makes random movements. Repeating and repeating these random movements develops the neural pathways that allow the control of the baby’s own movement to gradually arise. By copying the human walkers around her, the baby learns to walk. Speaking becomes possible because fine motor skill is developing to control the various fine muscle activity involved in creating speech sounds, from jaw movement, air, tongue and lips, to the vocal cords in the larynx. The sounds are copied from the human speakers around her. Speaking is a foundation for thinking because most human beings think in words. First we have to develop vocabulary, syntax and grammar, and then we can think.
Let me repeat; When human babies are born, they cannot walk or talk. How they learn to walk and speak is by copying the other human beings in their environment. If they were not around other human beings they would not learn how to walk and speak like a human. (For example the ‘wolf child of Aveyron’). The children also learn many other things from parents through imitation, notably their strategies to deal with frustration and stress.
Mirror neurons are active when we are learning to walk and to speak. The child’s motor nerves are stimulated when seeing someone else walk, perhaps as preparation for their own walking. The same with the vocal system. When watching and hearing someone speak, the larynx and related organs are stimulated to move in a similar fashion as the speaker’s. This continues our whole life.
It is crucial to understand the role of imitation in learning for the young child. When we grasp the implications of this fact, we have to look at ourselves to see if we say and do what we want the children to imitate. Since the primary learning modality for the young child is imitation, what we do and say, and who we are as adults standing before them is of the utmost importance.
This is an except from my just finished new book, Conscious Parenting: A Guide to Living With Young Children