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Imitation and the Social MindReview - Imitation and the Social Mind
Autism and Typical Development
by Sally Rogers and Justin Williams (Editors)
Guilford, 2006
Review by R.A. Goodrich, Ph.D.
Oct 16th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 42)

Imitation and the Social Mind comprises eighteen predominantly Anglo-American contributions from researchers mainly drawn from Departments of Psychology based in Canada and the United States, England and Scotland, France, Australia, and Germany.  Its first nine chapters explore imitation as a central component of typical development; the next two, the neurological foundations of imitation; and the last seven, relationships between imitation, the autistic spectrum of disorders and cognate disabilities.  For clinicians and researchers in the field, it forms the latest anthology in a recent sequence that includes the 1999 Imitation in Infancy collection and the 2002 The Imitative Mind volume where some of the present contributors have previously appeared. 

However, rather than compare and contrast this volume with earlier ones, what follows will concentrate upon one aspect of its common theme, namely, the pre-occupation with imitation of behavior broadly conceived, before concluding with its somewhat pointed omission.  The editors' preface almost immediately sounds the key when trying to depict the workings of the "human brain" (the "social mind" of the subtitle being ignored in favor of "mental states") (ix).  The brain is most crucially centered upon "the human ability to represent our own experiences and share these with others" as a means of learning about "the world indirectly, from others" which is then termed "social cognition" (ix).  Autism, largely defined by "a collection of symptoms" culled from the DSM-IV, is seen to be "compelling" because the disorder--or, more precisely, the spectrum of pervasive disorders--"affects capacities that seem so fundamental to our functioning" (ix).  Amongst the challenges posed by the autistic spectrum is to "behaviors that occur so early and so universally," one of which is imitation itself (x).   How exactly do the editors, Sally Rogers and Justin Williams, conceptualize imitation?   First of all, they identify it as a relational ability, an ability "to learn socially from others and to incorporate behaviors seen in others" within one's "behavioral repertoire" (x).  Secondly, imitation involves us in two distinct roles, that of the participant ("the behavior we enact") and that of the spectator ("the behavior we observe").  Thirdly--but more contestably if one were to think of the role of speech--imitation is "the means by which we absorb, repeat, and so become integrated with human culture" (x).  Fourthly, when turning to neurological investigations, imitation is said to a process of mapping or an "ability to map"  "enacted" behavior onto "observed" behavior (xi).  Finally, imitation can be related to, but is not identical with, "emulation" and "emotional contagion" from both a developmental and a cognitive point of view (xi).

Are these five salient features of imitation upheld or modified by other contributors?  Let us sample some of the initial chapters.  Sally Rogers herself draws upon George Butterworth's earlier definition.  Here, imitation occurs when an individual "voluntarily reproduces" an observed single behavior of another who "acts as the model for [its] form" (4) and where its lack  across various perceptual modalities in "self-other correspondences" suggests "a possible starting-point for the cascade of social impairments" detected within the autistic spectrum (11).  Subsequently, when reviewing critical questions that need addressing, Rogers includes a range of concerns that re-surfaces throughout the anthology.  For example, should imitation be restricted to behavior that involves "understanding of both goals and means of the model" (15)?  Are infantile "matching responses" the result of non-volitional, automatic "mimicry" (15)?  However, "if mimicry follows mastery" (17), then is imitation at play when acquiring novel actions or movements during the process of

breaking down the complex movement into its simple parts involving actions currently in one's repertoire, and then building up the complexity slowly, through trial and error, chaining and sequencing, and much practice (16);

the very process long identified in language development?  Does the nature of imitation change for infants?  Does it, for instance, not only underpin but also become transformed by "the shift from primary, or dyadic, to pragmatic, or triadic, communication" during the initial year in which "interpersonal timing and topic sharing" typically emerge (20)?  In other words, what is "the nature of discontinuities in imitative performances across time" (22)?  Is it possible that neonatal imitation bears no direct relationship to subsequent developments in matching responses; rather, might it simply "influence parental social engagement" with the child (20)?

Whilst Elise Masur's second chapter directs readers' attention to some methodological pitfalls in experiments with and tests for imitation in institutional settings, Malinda Carpenter's third chapter probes the issue of goals and intentions in the imitation of actions or movements as if it were unproblematically on a par with achieving understanding through speech.  Indeed, Carpenter begins with the scenario of someone saying, "Do this" (48).  She regards this kind of speech act--be it a piece of advice or an order or a request is not explicitly revealed--as subsumed under the "problem of reference" of the rigorously behaviorist kind promulgated by the logician W.V.O. Quine in his classic case of determining the meaning of "Gavagai" (48). When focusing upon autistic cases and conceding somewhat ambiguously that "intentions are less easily inferrable [sic] from observable behavior than goals" (55), the rationale appears to be absent.  It is an absence made all the more pertinent in light of Tony Charman's exposition of the Wittgensteinian problem of "How can a child learn a word when no non-linguistic procedures can unambiguously illustrate its reference?" (101)  Again, when in the fourth chapter Eric Moody and Daniel McIntosh investigate mimicry, acknowledging at first that boundaries amongst its cognate concepts are not agreed let alone accepted (72), they stipulate such features as rapidity, non-intentionality, and automaticity (73 & 75-76) without confronting Rogers' above-mentioned counter-hypothesis (17).  (Admittedly, it should be added, when Rogers and her co-editor return to different kinds of matching behavior, the foregoing features of mimicry are accepted (290-291; cf. 434).)  To take one further example, Tony Charman's absorbing fifth chapter exploring "action-imitation and the development of verbal skills" (97), readers confront a set of initiating questions which, wittingly or not, quickly shifts the relationship between the two.  At first, he asks "what developmental processes are common" to them before asking "In what ways is imitation necessary for language development" and then concludes with "on what processes are imitation and language both commonly dependent" (97).  The notions of commonality, necessity, and dependency are no more synonymous than are those of verbal skills, language development, and language, or, if they are, justification at this foundational level seems to be warranted.

At this juncture, it might be objected that we have adopted too conceptual an approach and, should we persist in so doing, we ought to focus upon the sixteenth chapter by Isobel Smith, Crystal Lowe-Pearce, and Shana Nichols which has that express purpose.  Yet it rapidly becomes apparent that Smith and colleagues, even in their section headed "definition of imitation," are principally concerned with clarifying methodological complexities in their opening statement, "the choice of measurement determines in part what can be measured" (378).  In effect, readers are introduced to the prevailing modes of assessing imitation in light of research agenda or in light of research techniques as distinct from any attempt to define imitation, whether in an open-ended manner or in a closed one depicting necessary and sufficient criteria.  Nor are readers given the opportunity to see how the notion of imitation was foregrounded in the cognitive sciences under the label of the "Turing Test" (conveniently surveyed by Graham Oppy and David Dowe online at:  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/turing-test/ ).  Nor, as Deborah Dewey and Shauna Bottos begin to do (399), have Smith and colleagues appealed to dictionary definitions.  Their readers may well have been intrigued by past uses of the term as documented by the Oxford English Dictionary and the Chamber's Twentieth Century Dictionary. The verb "to imitate" alone includes a cluster of applications: to attempt to do something after the manner of someone or something; to follow the example of someone or something; to simulate, reproduce, mimic, counterfeit, or copy something (though not necessarily exactly); to make or produce a representation of something; to pursue the course of something by using parallel examples; and, to become or make oneself like or to assume the aspect or semblance of someone or something (whether consciously or not, intentionally or not).  All admit degrees of attainment; all are skills open to practice; all are "task" rather than "achievement" verbs; all imply at least a dyadic, asymmetrical relationship; all, as Rogers (20), Jacqueline Nadel (123-126), and Susan Hepburn and Wendy Stone (311) overtly suggest, are open to developmental transformations.  The difficulty facing all of us here is one found with such other relational notions as correspondence and resemblance (to take two concepts raised by, say, Rogers and Williams when critiquing the Hobson and Meyer contribution (285)).  It is as if we are dealing with a promiscuous concept, so to speak, caught in all kinds of liaisons, which, short of stipulating its isolation, infects all.

Much of Imitation and the Social Mind is also devoted to setting future directions for research.  This is accomplished in part by the inclusion of neurological hypotheses--especially that  known as the mirror neuron hypothesis--through contributions by Jean Decety (251-274 ), the editors in passing (293-298), and Justin Williams and Gordon Waiter (352-376) amongst others.  The concluding chapter by Bruce Pennington and the editors re-enforces the same approach, ending with six questions they believe remain unresolved, two of which concern the neurological basis of autism (449-450).  For all the riches of this anthology and for all the questions it poses, there appears to be a noticeable omission.  It is not one so much related to its readership, although the relative absence of reference to the frameworks within which teachers and therapists of children in the autistic spectrum operate might unsettle some potential readers.  For example, the Dewey and Bottos chapter focused upon motor or kinetic disorders reveals the strong influence of Sharon Cermak whose writings since the 'seventies would be familiar to occupational therapists. Yet, whilst delving, for example, into Eric Roy's contemporaneous discussions about apraxia, or neurological disruptions to planning and sequencing actions, Dewey and Bottos (400-401) ignore its verbal connections, thereby leaving speech therapists less able to anchor themselves in the discussion.  Hence, by the time this seventeenth chapter concludes that

the co-existence of frontal and cerebellar abnormalities helps in explaining the co-occurrence of motor and cognitive impairments in children with various developmental disorders

many of whom "display not only motor problems but also problems in visual-motor integration" (417 & 418), the more pertinent omission of Imitation and the Social Mind has generally become more evident.  What is neglected is a deeper, critical appraisal of the systematic contentions of previous generations of neuro-psychologists and neuro-linguists. It seems curious, for instance, to find such forays into executive dysfunction or impaired self-regulatory function by a James Russell more recently or an Alexander Luria before him ignored when Pennington, Rogers and Williams uphold "a cascade model of the development of autism" (441).  If nothing else, would the path advocated here not help disclose why more empirically driven research nowadays is fundamentally dissatisfied with former accounts?  Are readers not owed an examination of former answers to those very questions which are now purported to be unresolved or previously unrealized about why particular "symptoms cluster together" in the autistic spectrum and whether "some core ability, or abilities,...when disrupted, result in this...pattern" (ix)?

© 2007 R.A. Goodrich

R.A. Goodrich teaches in the School of Communication & Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues, and currently co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a pilot study of a number of children within the autistic spectrum of disorders.


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