I am a mother to two beautiful boys: a 2.5 year old and a five month old. Before I became a mother, strangers would always say: “Cherish every minute. It really goes by too fast!” I never thought much of this until I actually had my children; now, I really wish I could put a pause on time. Watching them grow has been the single most rewarding thing in my life. It’s especially been satisfying to see the progression in their development: from speech, physical changes and personality. One thing that my husband and I have found particularly amusing is how much my toddler imitates us, whether it be right after we do or say something, or even a couple days later.
This act of imitation is funded by mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are derived in the premotor cortex of the brain and were originally discovered through a study by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his coworkers on a monkey in the early 1990s. The results from their study concluded that these neurons responded both when carrying out an action, as well as when they observed the action themselves (Goldstein 2011: 75). In humans, mirror neurons are important for understanding the actions and intentions of other people and for learning new skills by imitation.
Even before children are a year old, they are able to imitate their caregivers. For example, my five month old recently started making eye contact, cooing and smiling when looking at me. When I smile, he smiles back. This is a simple example of the mirror neurons in action. Dr. Andrew Meltzoff’s study showing that infants a few minutes old will stick their tongue out at adults doing the same thing is another example (Blakeslee 2006). Meltzoff also claims that “humans are hard-wired for imitation”, which is why mirror neurons are so heavily involved in observing what others do. This explains why even at such an early age, infants show signs of imitation, like the examples I provided.
Mirror neurons in humans are fundamental in multiple aspects, significantly impacting language and learning. Proper functioning of these neurons is essential for healthy development in infants. Learning more about these neurons have allowed me to understand, from a cognitive aspect, why my children imitate so much and how important it is that they do so.
Goldstein, E.B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning: Belmont, CA.
Cells That Read Minds (NY TImes Article): http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/science/10mirr.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0