For adults, imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but for babies it's their foremost tool for learning.
As renowned people-watchers, babies often observe others demonstrate how to do things and then copy those body movements. It's how little ones know, usually without explicit instructions, to hold a toy phone to the ear or guide a spoon to the mouth.
Now researchers from the University of Washington and Temple University have found the first evidence revealing a key aspect of the brain processing that occurs in babies to allow this learning by observation.
The findings, published online Oct. 30 by PLOS ONE
, are the first to show that babies' brains showed specific activation patterns when an adult performed a task with different parts of her body. When 14-month-old babies simply watched an adult use her hand to touch a toy, the hand area of the baby's brain lit up. When another group of infants watched an adult touch the toy using only her foot, the foot area of the baby's brain showed more activity.
"Babies are exquisitely careful people-watchers, and they're primed to learn from others," said Andrew Meltzoff, co-author and co-director of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. "And now we see that when babies watch someone else, it activates their own brains. This study is a first step in understanding the neuroscience of how babies learn through imitation."