neonatal imitation

Bill Benzon (
Mon, 19 Oct 1998 20:50:13 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 19 Oct 1998 20:50:13 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: neonatal imitation


T. G. R. Bower, _A Primer of Infant Development_, Freeman 1977, pp. 27-30.

Andrew N. Meltzoff and M Keith Moore, "Infants' Understanding of People and
Things: From Body Imitation to Folk Psychology," in J L Mermudex, A Marcel,
and N Eilan eds. _The Body and the Self_, MIT Press 1995, pp.43-70.

The following are some remarks of mine from an unpublished manuscript on
"An I for an Eye: Some Notes on the Self as a Cognitive Structure":

We know, in fact, that human infants can reliably imitate adult facial
expressions in the first days of life, even as young as 42 minutes
(Meltzoff and Moore 1995, Bower 1977). For example, if you look at a
neonate and stick your tongue out, the infant will imitate your action.
The same for eye fluttering, lip protrusion, mouth opening, and finger
movement. This happens so early in life that it seems unlikely that infants
have learned how to do this. Rather, such behavior must be innate.

One might well wonder just how the genes could accomplish this bit of
programming. I certainly don't have an answer to that question. But I can
make a suggestion which is grounded in the fact that the human genome is
heir to millions upon millions of years of vertebrate evolution. I suggest
that the information processing demands of this simple kind of imitation
seem to be on a par with the information processing activities of a toad
zapping flies out of the air with its tongue (Ewert, 1974). A fly is a dark
spot moving against its background (see also Lettvin et al. 1959); that is
not so different from an eye, with its dark pupil (and iris) against the
white of the eye. And it is not too difficult to imagine similar machinery
being able to discriminate a moving and pinkish tongue from its background.
And the motor programming which a toad uses to catch flies would seem to
be, if anything, more sophisticated than that which allows an infant to
protrude her tongue in imitation of an adult's tongue protrusion. I am thus
suggesting that the human infant's imitative competence is implemented
through perceptual and motor patterns which have been inherited from our
reptilian and amphibian ancestors and put to rather different use.

In making this suggestion I am invoking the logic of an argument
Nicholas Humphrey made in his classic account of "What the Frog's Eye Tells
the Monkey's Brain" (1970). Humphrey did a series of experiments in which
he destroyed the cortical visual areas of two monkeys. While they lost the
ability to identify objects, they still had crude visual abilities.
Humphrey concludes (p. 336):

Is there any sense in the idea that after removal of the visual cortex the
monkey sees in some ways like a frog, as if the lesion produced a sort of
phylogenetic regression? ... It seems possible that in the orienting
movements s toad makes to fly we are indeed witnessing the primitive
homologue of the visual-grasp eye-movements with which advanced mammals
fixate visual targets and which are the only token of visually guided
behavior left in the de-striate monkey. Although the subcortical visual
structures of the monkey may have a significance for vision beyond what
they can be supposed to have in an amphibian lacking a visual cortex, the
operations of isolating a visual figure for the attention of the cortex and
detecting a prey object for the attention of the tongue are formally the

And so it goes with basic facial recognition and imitation. The subcortical
system which underlies the neonate's limited capacities for social
interaction has capabilities which seem comparable to the midbrain systems
of frog and toad. It is perhaps not so difficult to believe that the genome
could retain and reconstruct those capacities though millions of years of
evolution. Those neural structures and capacities of the Inner Toad are the
unmoved mover of human social interaction and are, I propose in a later
section of this essay, critical to the development of the self structure.

Bill B

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA

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