For years, scientists have tried to understand how newborn babies are able to interact with other people. It has long been believed that infants learn to imitate the facial expressions, hand gestures, or even vocal sounds of grownups as early as the first few weeks following their birth.

A new study featured in the journal Current Biology, however, suggests that infants are not the ones who do the imitating but rather the grownups themselves.

Developmental psychologist Virginia Slaughter and her colleagues at the University of Queensland in Australia examined how 1, 3, 6 and 9-week-old infants respond to various gestures by adults.

The babies were shown each gesture from grownups for 60 seconds after which the researchers documented the children's response. The team made sure that the infants were quiet, alert and engaged throughout the sessions so that they won't get confused by the gestures.

The researchers found no evidence that would suggest the infants imitated any of the gestures shown to them at any point.

Slaughter said that older babies have been shown to have the ability to imitate grownups, but based on their findings it would appear that this skill is learned by the children as they continue to develop.

She explained that the adults are the ones who mimic the gestures of babies likely as a way to teach them how to behave.

By impersonating the infants' behavior, grownups are able to set up some form of reciprocal interaction, which then leads to imitation. However, instead of having the babies copy the actions of their parents, Slaughter said it is the adults who imitate the children's behavior.

Slaughter and her colleagues' findings are expected to create a major impact on the area of child development.

Cheryl Dissanayake, a developmental psychologist at La Trobe University, called the new research a "game changer."

"None of the studies to date have had this many children or this many gestures included within a strong experimental paradigm," Dissanayake said.

She added that the paper was the first of its kind to investigate imitation in newborn infants.

Photo: Sami Keinänen | Flickr 

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