"Cognitive Imitation in Monkeys and Children: A Comparative Study" by Francys Subiaul

Francys Subiaul

Deposited 2004

There are many ways to imitate. One can imitate specific motor patterns (i.e., motor imitation) or one may copy abstract rules, such as goals, concepts, or sequential structure (i.e., cognitive imitation) independent of specific motor actions. This dissertation sought to make three important contributions to the study of cognitive imitation: methodological, empirical, and conceptual. In three different experiments the simultaneous chain task was employed to measure cognitive imitation in monkeys, normally developing children and autistic subjects. Simultaneous chains are executed on a touch-sensitive screen and consist of arbitrarily selected pictures that appear in random spatial configurations from trial to trial. Subjects must respond to each item on the list in the correct sequence without the aid of spatial or motor cues. The use of a cognitive task such as the simultaneous chain task represents a significant methodological contribution to the study of imitation.

Results demonstrated that after controlling for alternate learning mechanisms such as stimulus/local enhancement, social facilitation, and computer-generated feedback, monkeys, normally developing children and autistic subjects all evidenced cognitive imitation. Moreover, when the monkeys' performance was compared to that of normally developing 2-year olds, there was no statistical (or qualitative) difference in performance.

The isolation of cognitive imitation in these different populations, some of which have been characterized as impaired in motor imitation, suggests that motor and cognitive imitation are independent social learning mechanisms with discrete neurobiological profiles and evolutionary histories.