Children, particularly in the early years of life, use imitation as one method of learning about the world. Even newborns imitate gestures such as mouth opening and closing and tongue protrusion and withdrawal. They also imitate head movements. Imitating might help infants to engage better with adults with whom they interact.
Infants have to view the movement itself, and not just a static representation of the movement, in order to imitate it. When a grownup who has been demonstrating an action becomes inactive, the infant will continue to imitate the act, possibly in an effort to re-engage the interaction. When babies are a few months old, they are able to reproduce even an activity that is displayed in a static way.
Babies seemed primed to imitate and interact with humans, not objects. Infants who watched a doll engaged in mouth openings did not imitate the gestures, as they had when they observed a human. The context for imitation is communication and socializing, not playing with inanimate objects.
The imitation process requires the synthesis of perception with action. By late in the first year of life, infants can watch others to learn how to perform specific actions on objects. This observational learning shows the importance of interaction with others as a basis for learning about objects.
Children aged 14 to 24 months are able to watch an adult pull apart a toy and reassemble it and then, 24 hours later, imitate the adult by disassembling and reassembling the toy. Children who are presented with a novel toy without first seeing an adult maneuver it are much less likely to perform the same actions. Watching someone else perform an action provides a specific means to an end. Imitation is one way to learn a functional relationship. Even 9-month-olds can learn to perform specific actions on objects, imitating an adult's actions 24 hours after observing them. Babies 12 months old can learn and perform a sequence of actions on objects, recalling a sequence they observed several weeks earlier. Observing others acting to produce an event helps children learn to reproduce that event themselves.
Infants are active perceivers. The groundwork for language learning is laid before birth, and imitation helps infants to learn to communicate. Infants are receptive to non-verbal communication such as facial expression, gesture and vocalization. Babies 3 to 6 months olds match their mothers' pitch in their vocalizations. They vocalize imitation when they can see the speaker, demonstrating their use of imitation as a social and communicative action.
Cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists, philosophers and neuroscientists all study imitation as an aspect of development. In classical psychological theories, a child's mind was considered devoid of reason and filled with confusion. Recognizing that children use imitation to learn and interact opened up the channel of using infant minds to study fundamental principles of human thought. Imitation is also used as a tool to study the evolution of the mind, as compared to the minds of animals. Monkeys and other animals cannot imitate to nearly the same degree of accuracy as can human infants. Neuroscientists use imitation to study brain mechanisms such as mirror neurons, which are discharged in monkeys when they observe and perform an action. Even researchers who develop artificial intelligence, implement knowledge about imitation in children, embedding robots with the ability to copy a user's movements.
Imitation involves vision, coordination and motor control. If the imitation is delayed, memory is also needed. Human infants seem to act within an innate supramodal system, uniting observation and the execution of motor acts.
Some researchers believe that imitation lays the foundation for the later development of empathy. Empathy requires a sense of self as differentiated from others. In imitation, infants realize that others are similar to them in action; they can build on that understanding to realize that others also have feelings, desires and internal states just as they do.
Developmentally, there are differences between imitations of various movements. To imitate hand motions, babies have to use visual guidance to realize a match between the adult's hand and their own hands. In facial imitation, infants cannot see their own faces as visual guidance. They seem to be internally mapped to connect observation with execution.
The mapping theory is called AIM, or active intermodal mapping. It hypothesizes that infant imitation has an underlying goal-directed matching process. Infants' movements give them feedback that they can compare to the observed act. The natural feedback allows them to self-correct and perform imitative acts accurately.