How do we become mimics?

Many of us will be familiar with the experience of inadvertently copying someone else’s accent. While such mimicry might get you mocked, as it has for David Miliband recently when he adopted Russell Brand’s cockney accent during the election campaign, it is, in fact, an important signal that we use to try to convey a sense of similarity between ourselves and others. We don’t only mimic accents, we mimic others’ body postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions, and we seem to do this unconsciously. We engage in mimicry more with people who we like or who we want to impress, and when we do mimic others, they report liking us more, and want to help us more, than if we did not mimic them. 

It has long been assumed that this tendency to mimic others’ behavior is innate. Newborn babies are reported to imitate their parent’s facial expressions, and even appear to cry in sympathy with other babies; a phenomenon that looks a lot like the kind of automatic imitation that adults engage in during social interactions. However, there is now much debate about whether these infant behaviours reflect mimicry at all. Furthermore, there is another field of research suggesting that the phenomenon of mimicry is something that arises from experience. Each time we produce an action, and watch ourselves performing that action, the motor and visual representations associated with the action become linked such that eventually just seeing the action – which could be when it is produced by someone else – is enough to activate the linked motor representation in your own brain. The activation of this motor representation leads you to perform that action, resulting in mimicry. Something similar might happen with infants and facial expressions. Parents typically copy their babies’ facial expressions and in doing so, provide a visual representation that could become linked to the motor representation, leading to facial mimicry in infants. 

Photo by Travis Swan, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

With this Research Project Grant, we plan to bring together these separate fields of research and investigate whether and how mimicry might develop, and if so, what are the factors that influence its development. Since mimicry in adults is deployed in situations where we want to affiliate with others and influence their feelings towards us, we will investigate how infants’ growing awareness of social relationships changes their tendency to mimic others. We also plan to explore how brain connectivity – the increasing capacity of different regions of the brain to communicate with each other – influences mimicry. In adults, mimicry seems to depend on the ability of one region to influence another and so our investigation of mimicry development will need to consider the limited but developing ability of different regions of the infant brain to exert influence on one another. We hope that this approach, informed by knowledge of how mimicry operates in adults, and employing new techniques to study the infant brain, will provide much needed insight in to the origins of human mimicry. 

Dr Victoria Southgate
Birkbeck, University of London