Mirror Neurons and Neonatal Imitation in relation to infants
Have you ever watched in wonderment as you smile big at your baby and they smile right back? This brain ability is likely due to so-called mirror neurons which fire both when we do an action ourselves, and when we watch others do a similar action. While such neurons have only been directly measured in monkeys, scientists are discovering they exist in adult humans, and now in infants!
When you see that look of amazement in the eyes of an infant you know the wheels are churning inside their wee head. New research confirms they are! Scientists have shown that when 9-month-olds watch people reach for objects, the motor region in their brains gets activated, as if the babies were doing the reaching themselves. Isn't that amazing! This means from birth you can be activating and stimulating your babies brain by simply interacting with them. They have found that 1-month-olds imitate mouth movements, tongue protrusions and head shaking mostly. When you are making these movements and baby is imitating, it is strengthening their brain and also promoting healthy social and emotional development later on in life. You are bonding with baby and stimulating brain growth at the same time! So go ahead and make those exaggerated kissy sounds, stick out your tongue, pucker your lips and talk to baby, it will do them so much good. And be mindful of anything you are doing in front of your baby because they will imitate it, both the negative and positive.
"Even in the first year of life, babies are using the area of their brain that is involved in their own motor skills, in order to help them perceive other people's actions," said lead researcher Victoria Southgate of the Center for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London. This means they are simply imitating what they see and hear around them. You can think of our children as sponges, sopping up all the information the world is providing them from day one. This material becomes our subconscious, it stays with us forever, and it is difficult to change these behaviors once they are laid down in our subconscious minds.
"We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people's mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but also through imitation. Feeling, not thinking." G. Rizzolatti
How can you integrate this valuable information into your life?
- Manage negative emotions: RESPOND IN A WAY YOU WOULD LIKE YOUR CHILD TO RESPOND WHEN FEELING ANGRY OR SAD
- Try to use visual signs and imitation any chance you get: Mirror neurons respond to visual signs and feelings. Lead by setting the example. Demonstrate the behaviors you would like to see..such as cleaning up their toys, brushing their teeth or helping someone.
- Please leave violence behind: If a child sees violent behavior, their mirror neurons activate and they are more likely to repeat these violent behaviors. Be mindful of what is on the screen when children are nearby.
- Think and be present: Take a deep breath, use nonviolent communication tactics or non-reaction before acting or saying anything especially if it is negative. Again, take a breath and take your time, try to say things as calmly as possible, emotional states can be contagious and children may imitate.
Food For Thought...
It is thought that we mirror behaviors and facial expressions as adults to help us understand the emotional states of others and learn by imitation. We tend to mimic, match moods, facial expressions, and behavior as empathy. This is why if we see someone is smiling and we are upset, chances are we will still smile despite being upset, to match our feelings to our emotional environment, as a way to empathize. If you think about this in relation to our infants you begin to see how our ability to model healthy imitation can lead to a truly empathetic child and future adult. After all, empathy is the basis of compassion and love.
The idea that parenting is a path to finding our true selves is embodied in the new neuroscience. If we know our children are genuinely mirroring our behaviors and emotions, we self reflect in each moment, perhaps discovering changes we would like to see in ourselves.