Rendiconti Lincei

, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 285–289 | Cite as

Imitation: mechanisms and importance for human culture

Advances and Perspectives in Neuroculture


While many articles have discussed the role of mirror mechanism in action and intention understanding, relatively few have examined its role in imitation. Here, I address this issue. I show first that humans and apes dramatically differ in their imitation capacity. The capacity to achieve a goal—shown by a demonstrator—by repeating exactly his/her motor acts (“true imitation”) is virtually absent in apes, while it is well developed in children already before their first birthday. I propose then that this ability depends in large part by the presence in humans of a particular type of mirror neurons that transform observed visual movements into potential movements. I maintain that the appearance in evolution of these neurons was a major factor for the “learnability” increase that occurred about 75,000 years ago. Following Ramachandran (The tell-tale brain. Unlocking the mystery of human nature, 2011), I conclude that the fast cultural progress that started at that time was strongly related to an increase of mirror neurons and, most importantly, to the appearance of mirror neurons encoding meaningless gestures.


Imitation Mirror mechanism Human evolution Cultural “Big bang” 



This study was supported by the Advanced European Research Grant COGSYSTEM.


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Copyright information

© Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento di Neuroscienze, Sezione di FisiologiaUniversità di ParmaParmaItaly
  2. 2.Brain Center for Motor and Social Cognition, Italian Institute of Technology (IIT)ParmaItaly

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