Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

Imitation and Empathy in Infancy

Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

Imitation and Empathy in Infancy

Article excerpt


Numerous writers have described how imitation may lead to empathy: when an imitator performs the same behavior as another, she may experience, directly or through associated memories, the same cognitions and emotions as the person being imitated. Meltzoff's recent description of newborn infants' ability to recognize selfother equivalences in action - the 'Like me' framework - links imitation and empathy in this way. The theory builds on reports that infants can imitate from birth. However, evidence for newborn imitation is open to alternative interpretation. Other findings indicate that infants' voluntary reproduction of actions of others requires substantial learning and emerges in the second year. Evidence of such learning is presented here, and implications for studying the origins of imitation and empathy are discussed.

KEYWORDS: infancy, imitation, empathy, newborn.

The potential for a close link between the ability to imitate others and the ability to empathize with others has been appreciated by researchers and theorists dating back at least to the late 19th century (see Iacoboni, 2009, for several early sources; see also Freud, 1921). 'Empathy' in their writings refers variously to the ability of one person to either understand or share the thoughts, motivations, intentions, or emotional experiences of another, without having had those private events explicitly communicated to them - for example, in language (Singer, 2006). The proposed role of imitation in producing empathy is to bring the person imitating into the same experiential context as the person being imitated, thus creating in the imitator a set of private experiences - understanding and/or emotional responses - that are either immediately evoked by that context or associated with that context in memory, and that match (or at least are thought to match) the private experiences of the person being imitated.

Recent years have seen a rise in research studies and theoretical papers concerned with the origins of imitation and empathy in infancy (e.g., Meltzoff, 1995; 2002; 2005; 2007a; 2007b; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003; Singer, 2006), and with the neural underpinnings of these abilities in infants, children, and adults (e.g., Carr, Iacoboni, Dubeau, Mazziotta, & Lenzi, 2003; Dapretto, Davies, Pfeifer, Scott, Sigman, Bookheimer, & Iacoboni, 2006; de Waal, 2008; Decety & Jackson, 2004; Fogassi, Ferrari, Gesierich, Rozzi, Chersi, & Rizzolatti, 2005; Gallese, 2005; Gallese & Goldman, 1998; Gazzola, Aziz-Zadeh, & Keysers, 2006; Iacoboni, 2005; 2009; Iacoboni, Molnar-Szakacs, Gallese, Buccino, Mazziotta, & Rizzolatti, 2005; Iacoboni, Woods, Brass, Bekkering, Mazziotta, & Rizzolatti, 1999; Kaplan & Iacoboni, 2006; Pfeifer, Iacoboni, Mazziotta, & Dapretto, 2008; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). The purpose of this article is to examine one segment of this growing literature - that is, current thinking and evidence on the origins of imitation and empathy in infancy - and to identify the implications of this examination for future research on the origins of empathy.

The origins of imitation and empathy in infancy: the 'like me' hypothesis

The dominant theory of the origins of imitation, and the body of evidence that supports it, have been developed over many years by Meltzoff (e.g., 2002; 2005; 2007a; 2007b), and by Meltzoff and Moore (e.g., 1977; 1983; 1989; 1992; 1994; 1997). In Meltzoff's recent formulations (e.g., Meltzoff, 2002; 2005; 2007a; 2007b; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003), it is clear that this account of the origins of imitation is also a theory of the origins of empathy.

The source of empathy is described by the 'Like me' hypothesis (e.g., Meltzoff, 2005; 2007a; 2007b), which follows in the tradition of simulation theories of empathy (e.g., Gallese & Goldman, 1998). The 'Like me' hypothesis proposes that the infant from birth can experience others as 'Like me' through her own imitative acts. …

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