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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016 Jan 19;371(1686):20150069. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0069.

Homo imitans? Seven reasons why imitation couldn't possibly be associative.

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All Souls College and Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 4AL, UK


Many comparative and developmental psychologists believe that we are Homo imitans; humans are more skilled and prolific imitators than other animals, because we have a special, inborn 'intermodal matching' mechanism that integrates representations of others with representations of the self. In contrast, the associative sequence learning (ASL) model suggests that human infants learn to imitate using mechanisms that they share with other animals, and the rich resources provided by their sociocultural environments. This article answers seven objections to the ASL model: (i) it presents evidence that newborns do not imitate; (ii) argues that infants receive a plentiful supply of the kind of experience necessary for learning to imitate; (iii) suggests that neither infants nor adults can imitate elementally novel actions; (iv) explains why non-human animals have a limited capacity for imitation; (v) discusses the goal-directedness of imitation; (vi) presents evidence that improvement in imitation depends on visual feedback; and (vii) reflects on the view that associative theories steal 'the soul of imitation'. The empirical success of the ASL model indicates that the mechanisms which make imitation possible, by aligning representations of self with representations of others, have been tweaked by cultural evolution, not built from scratch by genetic evolution.


active intermodal matching; associative learning; associative sequence learning; correspondence problem; imitation

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