Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/June 1888/The Imitative Faculty of Infants

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By Prof. W. PREYER.

TO determine as exactly as possible the date of the first imitative acts is of especial interest in regard to the genesis of mind, because even the most insignificant imitative movement furnishes a sure proof of activity of the cerebrum. For, in order to imitate, one must first perceive through the senses; secondly, have an idea of what has been perceived; thirdly, execute a movement corresponding to this idea. Now, this threefold central process can not exist without a cerebrum, or without certain parts of the cerebrum, probably the cortical substance. Without the cerebral cortex, certain perceptions are possible, to be sure; many movements are possible, but not the generation of the latter out of the former. However often imitation has the appearance of an involuntary movement, yet when it was executed the first time, it must have been executed with intention — i. e., voluntarily. When a child imitates, it has already a will. But the oftener a voluntary movement is repeated, always in the same way, so much more it approximates reflex movement. Hence many imitative acts, even in the child, occur involuntarily quite early. But the first ones are willed. When do they make their appearance?

If we make, for the infant to see, a movement that he has often practiced of his own accord, he can make a successful imitation much earlier than is commonly supposed. Such a movement, which I employed as suitable for early imitation, is the pursing of the mouth, the protruding of the closed lips, which often occurs (even in adults), along with a great strain of the attention. ~

This protruding of the lips occurred with my child on the tenth day of life (in the bath, when a burning candle was held before him at the distance of a metre); in the seventh week it was decidedly marked at sight of a new face quite near him; in the tenth week, at the bending and stretching of his legs in the bath. It was as if the letter u were to be pronounced—and yet the child was wholly unable to imitate this movement so easily made by him (as late as the fourteenth week) when I made it for him under the most favorable circumstances. At the end of the fifteenth week appeared for the first time the beginnings of an imitation, the infant making attempts to purse the lips when I did it close in front of him. That this was a case of imitative movement is shown by the imperfect character of it in comparison with the perfect pursing of the lips when he makes the movement of his own accord in some other strain of the attention. Strangely enough, the imitation was attempted on the one hundred and fifth day, but not in the following days.

Further attempts at imitation occurred so seldom and were so imperfect, notwithstanding much pains on my part to induce them, in the following weeks, that I was in doubt whether they might not be the result of accidental coincidences. Not till the seventh month were the attempts to imitate movements of the head, and the pursing of the lips already spoken of, so striking that I could no longer refer them to accidental coincidence. In particular the child often laughed when one laughed to him (p. 145). The attention is now more and more plainly strained when new movements are made for the infant to see—he follows these with evident interest, but without coming to the point of an attempt at imitation in a single instance. This indolence was the more surprising, as even in the seventeenth week the protruding of the tip of the tongue between the lips (customary with many adults at their work) was perfectly imitated once, when done by me before the child's face, and the child in fact smiled directly at this strange movement which seemed to please him. Imitative movements thus appear in the fourth month, which in the seventh, and even the ninth, do not succeed or are quite imperfectly achieved. Yet in the tenth month correct imitations of all sorts of movements were frequent, and it is certain that these were executed with distinct consciousness; for, when he is imitating movements of hand and arm frequently repeated before him—e. g., beckoning [in the general sense of making a sign] and saying—"Tatta"—the child looks fixedly at the person concerned, and then often suddenly makes the movement quite correctly.

Beckoning (Winken) is in general one of the movements of the infant acquired early by imitation. In my child it appeared for the first time at the beginning of the tenth month. When he was going to be taken out, his mother used to make a sign to him, and now he likewise made a sign, almost invariably, in the doorway, with one arm, frequently with both arms, yet with an expression of face that indicated that he moved the arms or arm without understanding, upon the opening of the door. The proof of this lies in the fact that, when I enter the room, the child, so long as the door is in motion, makes that movement which he at first only imitated, and does it regularly—no hint of leave-taking in it, therefore. The beckoning movement is made also at other times—e. g., on the opening and shutting of a large cupboard; it has, therefore, completely lost its purely imitative character. The movement consists essentially of a rapid raising and dropping of the extended arm; it is not, therefore, genuine beckoning. Not till after some weeks were motions of the hand added, and this more skillful imitation made it seem as if the machine-like movements that were made at the opening of the door were less and less involuntary, were more and more intentionally performed as genuine signs of leave-taking. But at this period (tenth month) such an action is not yet admissible; for when I make the same beckoning movement for the child without opening the door, he repeats it often in a purely imitative fashion without deliberation, though, to be sure, the eye has an expression of great strain of attention, on account of the difficulty of comprehending so quick a movement.

Not every imitative movement can be so clearly perceived to be willed as can this one. When one enters a room in which there are a good many infants, all quiet, one can easily observe the contagious influence of crying. For, if only one child begins to cry, then very soon several are crying, then many, often all of them. So, too, when one single infant (in the ninth month) hears other children cry, he likewise, in very many cases, begins to cry. The older the child becomes, the more seldom appears this kind of undesirable imitation; but even in children four years old, quite aimless imitative movements may often be perceived (as in mesmeric patients) if the children are observed without their knowledge. For example, they suddenly hold the arms crossed, as a stranger present is doing, and bow as he does at leaving.

A little girl in the last quarter of her first year imitated, in the drollest fashion, what she herself experienced in her treatment by the nurse, giving her doll a bath, punishing it, kissing it, singing it to sleep; and before the end of the first year she imitated the barking of the dog and the bleating of the sheep (Frau Dr. Friedemann).

Another female child imitated the following movements in a recognizable manner: in the eleventh month she threatened with the forefinger if any one did so to her, used a brush after she had seen brushes and combs, used a spoon properly, and drank from a cup, and made a kind of cradling movement with her doll, singing, "Eia—eia" In the thirteenth month the child made the motion of sewing, of writing (moistening the point of the pencil in her mouth), and of folding the arms. In the fifteenth month she fed the doll as she was fed herself, imitated shaving, on her own chin, and reading aloud, moving her finger along the [lines and modulating her voice. In the eighteenth month she imitated singing, and made the motion of turning a crank like a hurdy-gurdy player when she heard music; in the nineteenth she went on hands and feet, crying "Au, au!" (ow, ow), in imitation of a dog; in the twentieth she imitated smoking, holding a cane firmly with her fingers exactly as is done in smoking a pipe. Her younger sister, in her fifteenth month, first imitated the movement of sewing and of writing; while the elder, in the nineteenth month, after repeated attempts at imitation, sewed together two pieces of cloth, without instruction, drawing the needle through correctly (Frau von Strümpell).

Toward the end of the first year of life the voluntary imitative movements, more numerous than before, are executed much more skillfully and more quickly. But when they require complex co-ordination they easily fail. When (at the beginning of the twelfth month) any one struck several times with a salt spoon on a tumbler so that it resounded, my child took the spoon, looked at it steadily, and then likewise tried to strike on the glass with it, but he could not make it ring. In such imitations, which are entirely new, and on that account make a deeper impression, as in the case of puffing (Pusten), it would happen that they were repeated by the child in his dreams, without interruption of his sleep (twelfth month), a proof that the experiences of the day, however unimportant they appear to the adult, have stamped themselves firmly upon the impressionable brain of the child. But it takes always some seconds before a new or partly new movement, however simple, is imitated, when it is made for the child to imitate—e. g., it was a habit of my child (in the fourteenth month) to move both arms symmetrically hither and thither, saying, "ay—ĕ, ay—ĕ (altogether differently, much more persistently and rapidly, than when beckoning). If some one made this very swinging of the arms for the child to observe, with the same sound, there was always an interval of several seconds before the child could execute the movement in like fashion. The simplest mental processes of all, therefore, need much more time than they do later. But imitations of this kind are almost always performed more quickly when they are not sought, when the child-brain is not obliged first to get its bearings, but acts spontaneously. If I clear my throat, or cough purposely, without looking at the child, he often gives a little cough likewise in a comical manner. If I ask, "Did the child cough?" or if I ask him, "Can you cough?" he coughs, but generally copying less accurately (in the fourteenth and fifteenth months). The bow too tightly strained shoots beyond the mark.

Here, besides pure imitation, there is already understanding of the name of the imitated movement with the peculiar noise.

This important step in knowledge once taken, the movements imitated become more and more complicated, and are more and more connected with objects of daily experience. In the fifteenth month the child learns to blow out a candle. He puffs from six to ten times in vain, and grasps at the flame meantime, laughs when it is extinguished, and exerts himself, after it has been lighted, in blowing or breathing, with cheeks puffed out and lips protruded to an unnecessary degree, because he does not imitate accurately. For it can hardly be that a child that has never seen how a candle can be blown out would hit upon the notion of blowing it out. Understanding and experience are not yet sufficient to make this discovery.

I find, in general, that the movements made for imitation are the more easily imitated correctly the less complicated they are. When I opened and shut my hand alternately, merely for the purpose of amusing the child, he suddenly began to open and shut his right hand likewise in quite similar fashion. The resemblance of his movement to mine was extremely surprising in comparison with the awkward blowing out of the candle in the previous instance. It is occasioned by the greater simplicity. Yet, simple as the bending of the finger seems, it requires, nevertheless, so many harmonious impulses, nerve-excitements, and contractions of muscular fibers, that the imitation of simple movements even can hardly be understood without taking into account the element of heredity, since unusual movements, never performed, it may be, by ancestors—say, standing on the head—are never, under any circumstances, imitated correctly at the first attempt. The opening and shutting of the hand is just one of the movements by no means unusual, but often performed by ancestors. Still, it is to be noticed that at the beginning the imitation proceeded very slowly, although correctly. On the very next day it was much more rapid on the repetition of the attempt, and the child, surprised by the novelty of the experience, now observed attentively first my hand and then his own (fifteenth month).

Of the numerous more complicated movements of the succeeding period, the following, also, may be mentioned, in order to show the rapid progress in utilizing a new retinal image for the execution of an act corresponding to it: A large ring, which I slowly put on my head and took away again, was seized by the child, and put by him in the same way on his own head without fumbling (sixteenth month). But^ when it is a case of combination of a definite action of the muscles of the mouth with expiration of the breath, innumerable fruitless efforts at imitation are made before one of them succeeds, because, in this case, a part only of the working of the complicated muscular action can be perceived, while the rest must be found out by trial. Thus, the child could not, in spite of many attempts, get any tone out of a small hunting-horn. He put it to his mouth, and tried to imitate the tone with his own voice. Suddenly the right manner of blowing was hit upon accidentally, and from that time was never forgotten (eighteenth month).

After the child had seen how his mother combed her long dark hair before a glass, he took a hand-mirror and a comb and moved the comb around on his head, combing where there was no hair. So, too, he would now and then seize a brush and try to brush his head and his dress, but took special pleasure in brushing also all kinds of furniture. More than once he actually took a shawl, held it by a corner to his shoulder, and drew it behind him like a train, frequently turning around while doing this. He also put a collar round his neck; he tried to dry himself with a towel, but without success; whereas the washing of the hands with soap, without direction, was imitated, though not with much skill, yet tolerably well; none but very complicated imitative actions these, and all of them, in the case of my boy, belong to the third quarter of the second year—an exceptionally important period in mental genesis—the same is true of seizing, holding things before him, and (what was observed by Lindner in the sixth month) the imitation of reading aloud from a newspaper or pamphlet, the feeding of deer—holding out a single spear of grass to them—scraping the feet upon entering the house (as if the shoes were to be cleaned).

But how little real imitation and understanding of the act itself there was, even in this period of perfect external imitations, appears from the circumstance that a map is held, as a newspaper, "to be read aloud," before the face, and upside down. Now, too, the child likes to take a pencil, puts the point in his mouth, and then makes all sorts of marks on a sheet of paper, as if he could draw.

Just as remarkable is the lively interest in everything that goes on in the neighborhood of the child. In packing and unpacking, setting the table, lighting the fire, lifting and moving furniture, he tries to help. His imitative impulse seems here almost like ambition (twenty-third month).

Toward the end of the second year various ceremonious movements, especially those of salutation, are also imitated. The child sees how an older boy takes off his hat in salutation; immediately he takes off his own head-covering and puts it on again, like the other boy.

All these movements last enumerated are distinguished from the earlier ones by this, that they were executed or attempted by the boy unsolicited, without the least inducement or urging, entirely of his own motion.

They show, on the one hand, how powerful the imitative impulse has become (in the second year); on the other hand, how important this impulse must be for the further mental development. For, if the child at this age passes the greater part of his time in company inattentive to manners, or unrefined, then he will imitate all sorts of things injurious to him, and will easily acquire habits that hinder his further development. It is, therefore, of the greatest importance, even at this early period, to prevent the intercourse of children with strangers, and to avoid everything that might open wrong paths to the imitative impulse.

The imitative movements of the muscles of speech, the child's imitations of sounds, syllables, and words are treated of in detail in the third part of this work. The first answer of the infant to the language addressed to him by his relatives, which is said to be made, in individual cases, as early as the eighth and ninth weeks (according to Sully, 1882), is no attempt at imitation, but a directly reflexive movement, like screaming after a blow, etc. Singing has already been mentioned as one of the earliest imitated performances. It is true of these, as of all later imitations, that the first imitation of every new movement is voluntary on the part of the child, and, in case an involuntary imitation seems to occur, then either this has already been often repeated as such, or it is a movement often practiced without imitation. The accuracy of the imitation depends little, however, upon the co-operation of a deliberative cerebral activity. On the contrary, children of inferior mental endowment among those born deaf sometimes possess (according to Grude) a purer and more distinct enunciation than those more gifted.


A revision of the calendar has been proposed by M. Gaston Armelin to the Astronomical Society of France, the object of which is to have the same day of the month always come on the same day of the week. He would divide the year into four quarters of ninety-one days or thirteen weeks each—making three hundred and sixty-four days—and would leave the three hundred and sixty-fifth day as a supplementary day, outside of and additional to the weekly and monthly reckoning. All the months should be uniformly thirty and thirty-one days each, their length being fixed so as to fit exactly into the three-monthly reckoning.
  1. From "The Mind of the Child: Part I. The Senses and the Will." Being observations concerning the mental development of the human being in the first year of life. By W. Preyer, Professor of Physiology in the University of Jena. Translated from the German by II. W. Brown, with an Introduction by G. Stanley Hall. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888.