The Power of Mimicry

Mirror neurons, first discovered at the University of Parma in pigtail macaques, are seen as the key to a lot of interpersonal interactions ranging from imitation to empathy. These neurons erase the distinction between one’s own and somebody else’s behavior. Mirror neurons respond the same when a monkey itself is reaching for a peanut as when it sees another reach for a peanut. This is why they are also known as “monkey-see, monkey-do” neurons.

Their discovery has been hailed by Vilayanur Ramachandran: “I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”

Everyone assumes that humans have the same mirror neurons (even though until recently the evidence for this was not overwhelming), which explains why we easily adopt someone else’s facial expressions (we smile when others smile, yawn when others yawn, etc.), and why we like it when others mimic our own movements. We like to walk in stride with others and emphasize synchrony, for example, when we dance. Studies have shown that if a man or woman goes on a date with someone who mimics their movements (leans on table when we do, picks up glass when we do), we rate the date as more attractive than one who is friendly but unsynchronized with us.

Bodily synchrony is very in common animals, because many animals live in herds, flocks, or groups where it is very important to move together and be highly coordinated. The same tendency is visible in human-animal interactions. See for example the picture of the dog and Chinese soldier – this kind of synchronization would be impossible if the dog had no way of mapping its own body onto another’s – or watch the remarkable video of synchronized movement between a woman and her dog, Tina Humphrey and Chandi.

Now there is finally a study of the same love of mimicry in monkeys, following the rule that the best ideas for animal studies often come from comparisons with human behavior (something about which I blogged recently). Annika Paukner and colleagues presented brown capuchin monkeys with experimenters who either acted exactly like the monkeys or showed no such mimicry. They then measured whom the monkeys preferred to interact with. The monkeys preferred the mimicking person, which means that a) they noticed when people copied their actions, and b) they preferred such people over others, just as had been shown earlier in human studies.

The power of mimicry in social relations is going to be a major theme in future animal studies. We are working on it here at Living Links, and so are other teams, and we can be sure that neuroscience will increasingly be part of the picture.

— Frans de Waal