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For decades, there have been studies suggesting that human babies are capable of imitating facial gestures, hand gestures, facial expressions, or vocal sounds right from their first weeks of life after birth. But, based on new evidence, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 5, 2016 now say that just isn’t so. After testing young infants repeatedly over their first couple of months, they found no evidence at all that very young infants are capable of imitation.

The main limitation of earlier work is that researchers presented infants with a limited number of gestures. For example, in most studies, researchers only tested infants’ responses to an adult poking out her tongue and opening her mouth. However, the researchers didn’t have adults make any additional gestures or expressions, to see whether infants were truly imitating the adult’s behavior. “If infants also increase their tongue protrusions when an adult models a happy face or finger pointing, then it’s not a case of imitation, but probably excitement at seeing an adult do something interesting”, says Virginia Slaughter of the University of Queensland in Australia. “We eliminated this problem by assessing infants’ responses to a wide range of different models”. The results were quite clear: the infants did not imitate any of the behaviors that they observed. In response to the grownups they saw, they were just as likely to produce a different gesture as they were to produce a matching one.

Slaughter says that this result is not what they’d anticipated. In fact, they set out initially with the goal to examine whether differences in imitation amongst young infants would predict later imitation and other aspects of social development.

The findings now suggest that imitation is not an innate behavior, but one that is learned in babies’ first months. In fact, babies might learn to imitate other people based on watching other people imitate them. (1)

Unique waves. Part of the same ocean.

Unique snowflakes. During the same snowstorm.

Unique people. Imitating one another.

Because they are all too similar.

Part of the same…