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Imitation is a hot topic in
developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, animal studies, philosophical
considerations of theory of mind and intersubjectivity, as well as educational
studies. Hurley and Chater have collected a large number of first-rate essays
and commentaries, originating in a conference at Royaumont
Abbey, and focused on a variety of themes, gathered together under two
headings: Mechanisms of Imitation and Imitation in Animals (Vol 1) and
Imitation, Human Development, and Culture (Vol 2). The two volumes are
composed of 29 papers and 38 commentaries. The Introduction by Hurley and
Chater is printed in both volumes.
Rather than try to rehearse all of
the papers, or touch on all of the topics covered in these volumes (something that
Hurley and Chater do nicely in the Introduction, and something I won't try to
imitate), I will be selective and discuss three issues that are raised in this
collection. First, can animals imitate? Second, how does imitation facilitate
social interaction in humans? And third, how is imitation related to moral
Can animals imitate?
As you may expect, this depends on
how one defines imitation. There is a diversity of definitions offered in
these volumes. Rizzolatti, for example, follows Thorndike and defines
imitation as "learning to do an act from seeing it done" (I, 55).
Meltzoff offers a more complex characterization. Imitation must meet three
conditions: "(1) the observer produces behavior similar to the model, (2)
the perception of an act causes the observer's response, and (3) the
equivalence between the acts of self and other plays a role in generating a
response" (II, 55). One person's concept of imitation, however, is
another person's concept of perceptual priming, simulation, mirroring, contagion
or emulation. Thus, Jesse Prinz defines imitation as "a process by which
one organism comes to exhibit a state or behavior exhibited by another organism
through perceiving the other organism exhibit that state or behavior" (II,
276). But he immediately adds that it requires mentally mediated replication.
This is still, as he indicates, a broad definition that includes crying
contagion, although it is not clear why one should consider crying contagion a
form of mentally mediated replication. Others, like Tomasello (cited by
Prinz), offer a narrow definition, in which imitation requires a duplication of
both the means and the end of an action.
On a wide definition it seems clear
that animals imitate; on a narrow definition, perhaps they can't. Thomas
Zentall nicely captures this thought in his commentary on Anisfeld. Zentall
cites his study of Japanese quail who, after observing another quail step on a
treadle or peck at a treadle, will respectively step or peck when given access
to the treadle. Stepping and pecking turn out to accomplish the same result --
a specific movement of the treadle. Quail are also capable of deferred
imitation: imitating the behavior after a certain amount of time. Zentall
focuses on the "two-action method" of showing imitation. Using this
methodology, two groups of individuals watch a model behavior that accomplishes
the same task (moving the treadle), but each model uses a different action
(stepping vs. pecking). If each group of individuals tends to match the
behavior that is demonstrated, this is considered to be imitation. On this
operational definition, as Richard Byrne points out, "a growing list of
species are now claimed to show imitation" (I, 226). The list includes
Japanese quails, budgerigars, and human neonates. Byrne points out important
complications involved in some of the experiments on learning by imitation
conducted with animals. In some cases, there are no attempts to find out about
preexisting repertoire. In a study of four chimpanzees and six gorillas
(conducted by Stoinski and colleagues), the chimps were likely acculturated in
a human environment, whereas the gorillas were zoo animals. The chimps learned
a sequence of actions whereas the gorillas did not. Is there a firm conclusion
to be drawn from this? Other studies have shown that great apes who are
brought up by human caregivers can acquire "human" behaviors (I,
227). Sorting out imitation from perceptual priming, efficiency of behavior,
social facilitation, stimulus enhancement, or emulation is difficult, however.
Irene Pepperberg offers what she
considers to be a clear case of auditory imitation that cannot be confounded
with priming, social facilitation, stimulus enhancement, or anything else.
Namely, the replication of human speech in the African Grey Parrot. How
precise is their imitation? Pepperberg offers a detailed phonological account
to show that Alex the parrot shows good fidelity of vowel and stop imitation,
limited only by differences in mechanisms of vocal tract, supporting her
contention that Alex physically imitates her speech. The fact that Alex's
vocalizations are not merely phonetic reproductions, but are also referential
is important to distinguish "mere" mimicry from true imitation.
"If an act is performed
because the imitator understands its purpose -- to reach a goal, be it an
object or intentional communication, that is otherwise impossible to obtain --
then the imitation is intentional and complex, most likely indicating cognitive
processing" (I, 248).
Pepperberg offers a helpful
discussion of the neurological correlates of imitation (mirror neurons),
distinguishing between simple mimicry (relatively meaningless copying),
low-level imitation (involving some social interaction), and high-level
imitation (involving reference to goals or creation of improbable acts).
Throughout the discussions of
animal imitation reference is constantly made to human neonate imitation, as
demonstrated in experiments by Meltzoff and Moore. This raises questions about
the importance of the link between cultural settings and imitation, and
concepts of animal culture. Whiten et al. are thus motivated to point out that
"even though a substantial cultural repertoire may be acquired by
imitative copying, neither children nor chimpanzees copy all they see others
around them doing" (I, 264), and thus the question arises: What determines
what is imitated or not imitated? They note that in studies of chimp
imitation only parts of what is modeled gets copied, but that this is less the
case for infant imitation. In both cases, however, there is selectivity, and
this suggests that there is something that we might call "smart"
imitation. For example, a subject might smartly ignore irrelevant details of
particular movements and imitate only those aspects that are goal related; or a
subject may be able to represent, for meaning, specific aspects of meaningful
movement in alternative (non-motor) fashion, and therefore not need to imitate
that aspect. This kind of "adaptive flexibility" is explored
experimentally by Whiten et al. as a way to provide substance to the distinction
between emulation (which has a high degree of selectivity) and imitation (which
is less selective). The interesting question that they pose is whether animals
who partially imitate are poor imitators, or are actually smartly emulating
behavior. Their experiments suggest that both animals and children engage in
degrees of emulation, and that in some contexts chimps engage in a higher
degree of emulation than 3-year old humans. They conclude that apes
"appraise the 'meaning' of components of an act they see associated with
desirable outcomes" (I, 279), and thus imitate intelligently.
Is the problem of intersubjectivity
equivalent to the problem of "other minds," in regard to which we
must make inferences because other minds are otherwise not accessible? Or is
it equivalent to the problem of understanding the perceived embodied actions of
others? Many of the authors writing in Perspectives on Imitation start
from embodied actions and work their way towards the minds of others. Pursuing
this strategy, the concept of simulation constitutes not only an important tool
(in the context of experiments, for example, where subjects may be asked
"to mentally simulate an action" [Decety and Chaminade, I, 127]), but
also the solution to the puzzle (as one finds explicated in simulation theory
[ST] approaches to theory of mind). This is a frequent strategy found in
neuroscientific accounts of understanding and empathizing with others. Decety
and Chaminade, for example, introduce the notion of explicit simulation as
found in ST (as in Goldman, who compares explicit simulation and imitation, II,
92; see Hurley and Chater II, 26-27), and describe how this concept comes to be
used in the social neuroscience of mirror neurons, shared (neural) representations,
and perception-action common coding mechanisms. Vittorio Gallese equates these
processes with "automatic, implicit, and nonreflexive simulation
mechanisms" and, following Adolphs, calls them "as if body
loops" (I, 117). Robert Gordon equates this "constitutive
mirroring" with simulation (II, 100ff; see Hurley I, 189). Authors of two
other chapters in Vol 1, Marco Iacoboni and Giacomo Rizzolatti respectively,
have elsewhere employed the same terminology.
"Mirror neurons allow us to
grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but by direct
simulation. By feeling, not by thinking" (Rizzolatti,
quoted by Blakeslee 2006).
you see me perform an action - such as picking up a baseball - you
automatically simulate the action in your own brain" (Icoboni, quoted in
two questions to ask in regard to equating sub-personal neural processes with
simulation. Both questions relate to the very concept of simulation as it is
developed in ST, that is, in discussions that take ST to be a solution to the
problem of intersubjectivity or mind-reading. Simulation, as it is developed
in those discussions, is consistently characterized as having two aspects. (1)
The instrumental aspect: the simulation is a model that we purposively
use to understand something that we do not understand, namely, the other
person's mind. And (2) the pretense aspect: the simulation involves
off-line pretend states, and has the status of the subjunctive "as
if." I pretend to believe or act "as if" I were you. These two
aspects are obvious enough to anyone familiar with this literature, and I won't
try to make the case here (but see Gallagher, in press).
questions should now be obvious, however. First, in what sense can we regard
sub-personal automatic neuronal processes to be something that I (or the brain)
use(s) instrumentally as a model of something else? At the very least we can
note, as Gordon does (II, 104-106), that "the mirroring phenomena ... are
not "my own" in the requisite sense. If I am aware of them at all, I
am aware of them as underlying the other's behavior, not my own" (105).
Indeed, we should make this a stronger claim. We do not activate or control
activation of the neuronal processes, nor does the brain, in any proactive way;
rather, in instances relevant to intersubjectivity, the actions of other people
elicit that neuronal activity. There is no instrumental control or use
of these processes by the subject, or even the subject's brain. A claim such
as the following, for example, can be made only by reading personal level
vocabulary into subpersonal processes:
"Using our own motor
capacities to understand the actions performed by others is at the core of the
simulation theory. ... the neural motor system involved in the preparation and
execution of action, is also part of a simulation network which is used
to interpret the perceived actions performed by others" (Chaminade, Meary,
Orliaguet, Decety 2001; emphasis added).
The second question is this: In
what sense can we regard subpersonal automatic neuronal processes to be
"as-if" processes? Is there something like neuronal pretense or a
neuronal subjunctive? Notwithstanding Gordon's suggestion that neurons can
respond "as if I were carrying out the behavior" (II, 96),
there really is not an "as if it were I" or an "as if I were
you" at the neuronal level. As vehicles, neurons simply fire; they don't
pretend to fire. And in terms of what they "represent", there is now
general consensus that mirror neurons and shared representations are neutral,
that is, they represent neither first-person (my action) nor third-person (your
action), but simply action (for which a "who" is not yet determined;
see, e.g., Gallese I, 110-111). If there is no "I" or
"you" represented, it would be difficult to claim that there is a
representation of "as if I were you".
In both of these regards, then,
subpersonal neuronal processes of the mirroring kind fail to meet the
requirements for what makes a simulation a simulation as specified by ST.
How is imitation related to moral development?
The relation between imitation and
moral development has been an important topic of philosophical discussion, at
least since the time of Plato. What is fascinating in these two volumes of
essays is the recent empirical research and the various contexts in which this
relationship comes to be explicated. If we think of moral contexts as
involving action and relations to others, then imitation seems central.
Consider the variety of relevant contexts. Imitation has been shown to be
positively related to whether two people like each other, with empirical
evidence that shows that when others imitate us, our liking of them increases
(Dijksterhuis II, 210). Likewise, when we desire to affiliate with another
person, our imitation of them increases. Dijksterhuis cites a study by van
Baaren et al (2003) that shows the positive effects of verbal imitation on the
amount of tips received by waiters in a restaurant. Research also shows the link
between imitation and non-conscious trait inferences and stereotyping. The
famous experiment by Bargh et al. (1996) involved priming stereotypical
"old people" vocabulary (e.g., gray, bingo, Florida), resulting in a
slower pace of walking in the primed subjects. Dijksterhuis and van
Knippenberg (1998) showed that after subjects thought about typical behaviors
and attributes of college professors (or in contrast soccer hooligans), the
subjects were able to do better (or worse if they thought of soccer hooligans)
on general knowledge games. As a professor in Florida, these studies have some
practical interest for me. I now understand why, when I meet people, they seem
very smart, but walk very slow.
Other topics related to questions
of moral context concern deceptive imitation (Gambetta II, 221ff), the
importance of emotion in the role played by imitation in moral development (J.
Prinz II, 267ff), and the effect of violence portrayed in the mass media. In
regard to the latter, although it is very difficult to measure or show
causality, Eldridge draws a reasonable conclusion based on existing evidence:
"childhood exposure to violence in the media has lasting effects on
behavior through a high-level process of imitation in which cognitions that control
aggressive behavior are acquired" (II, 264). Several other essays (Donald,
Sugden, Gil-White, Greenberg, Chater, and many other commentators on these
essays) tell the evolutionary story of how we move from mimesis and imitation
to adopting the values of our tribe, and thence to the effects of broader
cultural memes for shaping our rationality and our cultural practices.
These various discussions all point
to the importance of imitation in moral development, a view that would
certainly support the Aristotelian conception of practical wisdom. For
Aristotle, to become a good person one must mix with good people and do what
they do. That is, one must imitate and practice good actions while
understanding and appreciating the worth of the ends accomplished by these
actions. Aristotle also pointed out that despite our general sense that this
is the way to attain virtue, there is no science of ethics. In part, this
means that there are no rules that will necessarily lead us to the good life.
This also seems to be confirmed in the various empirical studies of imitation.
There are no guaranteed, clear, or strong predictions that we can make about
any individual concerning whether they will imitate what they see, or whether
imitation, if it occurs, will shape their behavior in the right way.
Blakeslee, S. 2006. Cells that
read minds. New York Times (online) January 10, 2006.
Chaminade, T., Meary, D., Orliaguet, JP, and Decety, J.
2001. Is visual anticipation a motor simulation? A PET study. NeuroReport. 12:
(in press). Logical and phenomenological arguments
against simulation theory. In D. Hutto and M. Ratcliffe (eds.), Minding
our Practice: Folk Psychology Re-assessed. Springer Publishers.
© 2006 Shaun Gallagher
Shaun Gallagher, Ph.D., Professor
of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at The University of Central Florida.