The mirror neuron system as revealed through neonatal imitation: Presence from birth, predictive power and evidence of plasticity

Elizabeth A. Simpson, Lynne Murray, Annika Paukner, Pier F. Ferrari

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

67 Scopus citations


There is strong evidence that neonates imitate previously unseen behaviours. These behaviours are predominantly used in social interactions, demonstrating neonates' ability and motivation to engage with others. Research on neonatal imitation can provide a wealth of information about the early mirror neuron system (MNS), namely its functional characteristics, its plasticity from birth and its relation to skills later in development. Although numerous studies document the existence of neonatal imitation in the laboratory, little is known about its natural occurrence during parent-infant interactions and its plasticity as a consequence of experience. We review these critical aspects of imitation, which we argue are necessary for understanding the early action-perception system. We address common criticisms and misunderstandings about neonatal imitation and discuss methodological differences among studies. Recent work reveals that individual differences in neonatal imitation positively correlate with later social, cognitive and motor development. We propose that such variation in neonatal imitation could reflect important individual differences of the MNS. Although postnatal experience is not necessary for imitation, we present evidence that neonatal imitation is influenced by experience in the first week of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1644
StatePublished - Jun 5 2014



  • Mother-infant interaction
  • Mu suppression
  • Neonatal imitation
  • Newborn
  • Sensorimotor
  • Social development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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