Monday, September 18, 2006

Innate Imitation of Facial Expressions by Newborn Monkeys

Almost 30 years ago, Meltzoff and coworkers reported that 2- to 3-wk-old human infants responded with corresponding matching behaviors to specific human facial gestures, such as mouth opening, tongue protrusion, and lip protrusion. We are born with a computational model that transforms visual information into motor commands, a phenomenal connection between self and others exists from birth. This innate link brings us experientially into a world of others. There seems to be a clear evolutionary rationale for this: in highly social primates the imitation of affiliative and other facial gestures could be a basis of bonding to caretakers and fine tuning complex social interactions. (See my Feb. 10 post on the mirror system of neurons that might underlie this behavior).

The evolutionary origins of this mirroring behavior may extend further back that we have thought. The capacity of neonates to imitate adult facial movements has been thought to be limited to humans and perhaps the ape lineage. Now Ferrari et al report the behavioral responses of infant rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) to human facial and hand gestures: lip smacking, tongue protrusion, mouth opening, hand opening, and opening and closing of eyes.

Here are pictures they provide of monkey infants tested 1-3 days after birth, imitating mouth opening and tongue protrusion. By day 7 the imitation behavior had largely disappeared, unlike human and chimpanzee behaviors. This might be because these monkeys mature very rapidly, and by one week may already be leaving their mothers for short periods of time.


  1. Tai Cheh9:58 PM

    Triggered Virtual Sucking Reflex, Virtual Chewing Reflex and Virtual Swallowing Reflex of a 2-month old Infant and Misinterpreted Neonatal Facial Expression Imitation
    Cheh Tai Wen-Ray Lee Yu-Chung Huang
    Department of Psychology Chung-Yuan Christian University
    The reflexes of a 2-month old normal infant were triggered by various stimuli in this experiment. Subject was born in good health and full-term, under parental approval. Experiment I was observed from his oral movements during sleep; besides virtual sucking reflex, other reactions like tongue protruding, mouth honking appeared. It proved that virtual sucking reflex also appeared during sleep as a self-fulfilling prophecy of neonatal facial expressions imitation (Tai, 2005). Experiment II was to touch one ear of the infant or his face, consequently, tongue protruding and mouth opening were demonstrated same as virtual sucking reflex; moreover, virtual chewing reflex appeared after virtual sucking reflex. In the meantime, it was found that the infant leaned his face toward the experimenter’s hand, showing a rooting reflex. Experiment III was to breeze air toward the infant’s face or ear by squeezing a toy ball as a stimulus. As a result, virtual sucking reflexes such as tongue protruding and mouth opening appeared as well as a virtual chewing reflex followed by a virtual swallowing reflex. According to these three experiments, the infant’s virtual sucking reflex was triggered by various stimuli; furthermore, reflexes of chewing, rooting and swallowing were also observed in Experiment II and III. From the above results, this study suggested that virtual sucking reflex, virtual chewing reflex and virtual swallowing reflex were triggered consecutively by a non-habituating stimulus-air current and tried to attest neonatal facial expression imitation research by (Meltzoff ,1983a). Finally, the researcher discussed the continuity of 3 reflexes (virtual sucking reflex, virtual chewing reflex, and virtual swallowing reflex) of a 2-month old infant.

    Keywords: virtual sucking reflex, virtual chewing reflex, virtual swallowing reflex, neonatal facial expression imitation, rooting reflex.
    Type of paper: papers (topics: developmental psychology )

  2. Tai Cheh10:08 PM

    A Standard Equipment to Triggered a 5-month Old Infant’s Virtual Sucking Reflex and Moro Reflex
    Cheh Tai Yu-Chung Huang Wen-Ray Lee
    Department of Psychology Chung-Yuan Christian University
    Continued the research by Tai and Lee (2008), Tai (2005) attested the neonatal facial expression imitation of Meltzoff (1983a). This study tried to trigger the virtual sucking reflexes and moro reflex of infant by standardized the experiment equipments in using Model AB Air Brush (100V50Hz, pressure dashboard attached, air pressure about 25~30 pound per square inch) to provide a standard stimulation. The subject was a normal 5-month-old. The experimenter stimulated the infant by using a mini air-compressor which released an air pressure about 25~30 pound per square inch, in a 15cm distance as a experimental procedure. The target behaviors of tongue protruding, mouth opening and head shaking were observed. Sometimes the subject showed a consecutive demonstration of the above. Moreover, before the target behaviors were appeared, the subject would suddenly change its head position, then inducing the responses of arms reaching out, back curving and fans hands out a moro reflex. These target behaviors were not from the imitations of the experimenter but by the air current to arouse for the moro reflex precedes the sucking reflex which proved the research by Tai and Lee (2008). Furthermore, unlike the moro reflex of general 2 or 3-month old which would cease away, a 5-month old subject might continue in adulthood, because the moro reflex also called startle reflex which could last life time.

    Keywords: neonatal facial expression imitation, virtual sucking reflex, moro reflex, Model AB Air Brush, mini air-compressor, tongue protruding, sucking reflex
    Type of paper: papers (topics: developmental psychology)

  3. Anonymous1:50 AM

    Dear Professor,

    Greeting from Taiwan, I am Dr. Cheh Tai of Chun Yung Christian University in Taiwan. The reason that I am writing you is to provide several evidences that prove newborns do not imitate oral gestures. The results of our research indicated that imitate oral gestures of newborns are not imitation but reflexes and responses to external factors. We conducted our experiment by applying a soft stream air current onto on infant’s cheek, and have accurately observed virtual sucking, chewing, and swallowing reflexes. Our research has proves the study and conclusion of Melzoff and Moore’s (1983) as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and therefore not a credible finding.

    Files attached are our research data and detailed information of our research and study


    Dr. Cheh Tai

    Associate Professor of Psychology

    Chun Yung Christian University

    Mobile ++ 886 926 287 609

    TEL ++ 886 3 265 3430

    FAX ++ 886 3 265 3499


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