Social imitation in neonatal monkeys

control conditions, and smacked their lips far more often while watching researchers smacking theirs. (Watch an infant imitating mouth opening at DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040302.sv001.) By day 7, the monkeys tended to decrease lip smacking when humans performed the gesture, and by two weeks, all imitative behavior stopped.

Infant rhesus monkeys, these results suggest, have a narrow imitation window that opens three days after birth, when they can reproduce human tongue protrusion and lip smacking. This imitation period is much longer in humans (two to three months) and chimps (about two months). It's possible that rhesus babies show more varied and prolonged imitative behavior in response to mom or other monkeys than to human experimenters, who may not provide the most relevant biological cues. But this narrow window does comport with the development schedule of rhesus monkeys, which is much shorter than that of humans and chimps.

Many questions remain about the neural mechanisms of neonatal imitation. The researchers argue that their results support a resonance mechanism linked to mirror neurons, which have recently been identified while monkeys observe others' lip smacking and tongue protrusion. In this model, observing human mouth gestures directly activates mirror neurons in the monkeys' brain, ultimately leading to a replication of the gesture.

Human babies can imitate an adult's facial gesture a day after seeing it, which may help them identify individuals. For rhesus monkeys, lip smacking (which often alternates with tongue protrusion) accompanies grooming sessions and signals affiliation--an important social cue for a species that is often described as "despotic and nepotistic." Picking up these social gestures early in life may well facilitate the animal's early social relations (primarily with the mother) and assimilation into the social fabric of the group, providing a mechanism for distinguishing friend from foe. It will

Contact: Natalie Bouaravong
Public Library of Science

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