Do Infants Have An Innate Ability To Recognise The Human Face And Imitate Facial Expressions?

1664 words - 7 pages

The debate over whether or not infants are born with innate knowledge has been a long one. Nativist philosophers such as Kant (1781/1958) and Descartes (1638/1965) believed that certain abilities and understandings about the world were innate, whereas Empiricist William James (1890) believed, infants were a tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which information is "written". Even today the debate over whether or not infants are born with innate abilities has not been resolved, but by looking at research conducted into imitation with neonates Meltzoff and Moore (1977, 1983) and by considering possible functions of imitation is it possible to draw some conclusions. Similarly, it is not known whether or not infants recognise the human face innately or if it is knowledge acquired over time. Morton and Johnson suggest infants may be born with CONSPEC a mechanism which enables them to learn, and recognise their mothers by, external features.Piaget (1951), considered the imitation of facial gestures to be a key developmental stage, which was reached at 8-12 months, and noted that it was a landmark achievement, as the imitation of facial expressions requires the human neonate to equate their own unseen behaviours with gestures they see performed by others. More recent studies have disproved Piaget's belief that neonates lack perceptual-cognitive sophistication to perform imitative tasks until around the age 8-12 months and it is widely accepted that neonates imitate much early than he suggested.Meltzoff and Moore (1977, 1983) have conducted much of the research involving imitation in neonates. They conducted several studies involving neonates of varying ages and their ability to imitate facial expressions. Their 1983 study involving 12-21 day old neonates showed that although all neonates could not imitate all facial expressions displayed, all but one neonate could imitate at least one. Given that the ability to imitate was not correlated with age, Meltzoff and Moore concluded that the imitation is produced through an active matching process, and "mediated by an abstract representational system". They also suggest that the ability to use inter-modal processing is the enabling factor by which neonates display early imitation, and suggest that, given one neonate studied was only 60 minutes old, this ability is innate.Certainly it is plausible that imitation is learnt, but the fact that few neonates can imitate all the facial expressions and the fact one baby in the study could not imitate at all, does throw some doubt on Meltzoff and Moore's theory. Many critics have argued that even neonates as young 12-21 days old had the opportunity to learn, and that it may simply be conditioning. Another curious phenomenon is that imitation actually becomes harder to illicit as the neonate gets older. By the time the baby is 3-4 months little or no imitation is observed. This finding can be interpreted in two ways, critics argue that the two most reliable and often used...

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