The Social Brain

Imitation, as the saying goes, is the sincerest form of flattery. But it even seems to form the heart of our humanity. Indeed, imitation appears to be a vital key to understanding human development, from behavior and language to empathy and social skills.

Compared with most other species, human beings are so immature at birth that they require an exceptionally long period of nursing and shelter. We spend our long infancy and childhood adapting to the widely varying and complex sociocultural environment that surrounds us. This allows us to interact and operate successfully within our environment throughout our lives.

From the outset, even before we develop the ability to use spoken language, nonverbal communication drastically shapes our personality and sense of self. Children learn by watching adults and other children, developing important skills under continuous social feedback. This feedback enables proper production and, later, understanding, of emotion-related facial expressions that the subject herself cannot see. Fortunately for human development, healthy children find imitation enormously gratifying. They enjoy both imitating and being imitated.

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