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Cultural learning begins in infancy during parent-child imitation 

People are often learning from those around them without even being aware of it. Such social learning through imitation eliminates the need to start from scratch, ensuring progress is not repeatedly reset to zero. 

But what is the origin of this intrinsic skill that underpins cultural learning and, by extension, humanity’s evolutionary trajectory? 

A new study led by the Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) has recently found that this unique ability has its roots in early infancy.

“Children acquire their ability to imitate because they themselves are imitated by their caregivers,” said senior author Markus Paulus, the chair of the Developmental Psychology and Educational Psychology Department at LMU.

Focus of the study

The experts examined the interactions between several pairs of mothers and children over an extended period of time. The research sessions commenced when the infants were six months old and concluded at 18 months. 

Through a range of playful interactions, the researchers investigated the imitation patterns observed in these dyads.

Reciprocal imitation 

The analyses revealed a clear correlation: the more a mother sensitively interacted and imitated her six-month-old, the more proficient that child became at imitating others by 18 months.

This reciprocal imitation, apparent between parents and their children, acts as a communicative bridge. Caregivers often mirror the cues provided by their children, enhancing and amplifying them in the process, which leads to a shared imitation of movements and expressions. 

“These experiences create connections between what the child feels and does on the one hand and what it sees on the other. Associations are formed. The child’s visual experience is connected to its own motor activity,” Paulus explained.

Skill acquisition 

Imitation plays a pivotal role in children’s skill acquisition journey – from object handling to cultural norms like hand gestures and even language acquisition. 

“Children are incredible imitators. Mimicry paves the way to their further development. Imitation is the start of the cultural process toward becoming human,” Paulus said. 

Imitation is learned 

While historically the prevailing belief in psychology was that imitation was an innate skill, this new study provides evidence it is a learned rather than instinctual skill.

These findings suggest that the finesse with which children learn to mimic others is intimately tied to the responsive nature of their caregivers. In this context, sensitivity means the caregiver’s knack for recognizing and responding adeptly and swiftly to the child’s cues. 

“The sensitivity of the mother is a predictor of how strongly she imitates her child,” said lead author Samuel Essler, a postdoctoral fellow in Developmental Psychology at LMU.

Social interactions

The research also unravels the essence of what makes us inherently social creatures: our unique abilities that are honed through interpersonal interactions. These human traits are largely influenced by the distinctive methods employed in child-rearing.

“By being part of a social interaction culture, in which they are imitated, children learn to learn from others. Over the course of generations and millennia, this interplay has led to the cultural evolution of humans,” Paulus said. 

“Through social learning, certain actions or techniques do not have to be constantly invented anew, but there is a cultural transfer of knowledge. Our results show that the ability to imitate, and thus cultural learning, is itself a product of cultural learning, in particular the parent-child interaction,” he concluded.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

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