Element 25:

Why Humans Are Such Copycats

“No, my dear reader, you are not 100 percent in charge of your behaviors and actions; your inherent drive to mimic others plays a major role. It is why you find yourself imitating your neighbors, even if you don’t want too!”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

goldwiredheads[1]In the 18th century, the poet Edward Young asked if “we were all born originals, why is it that so many die copies?” Over 200 years after Young proposed this question, we now have the answer: We die copies of one another because we have a genetic drive that compels us to imitate one another. In a way, we are a species of copycats. Stop for a second to check out your appearance in the mirror. Why do you have that particular hair style? Why did you pick out that shirt or blouse? Why did you buy those particular shoes? How about that belt or jewelry you have on – what made you choose those? For that matter, why do you yawn when you see others yawning or feel sad around depressed people?

Whether you like it or not, like a bull being led by a ring in your nose, your genetic predisposition forces you to mimic the behaviors of those around you. The evidence shows that your style of dress, the car you drive, the amount of words you know, the slang you use, the traits you prefer in a mate, how you parent, and even your emotional reactions are all influenced by your genetic urge to imitate. No, my friend, you are not 100 percent in charge of your behaviors and actions; your inherent drive to mimic others plays a major role.

A major component in understanding the Learning Code is understanding this powerful urge we have to imitate, which is as compelling as eating, sleeping, nesting, hoarding, and mating. Because we all spontaneously and unconsciously mimic others’ behaviors, imitation must be consciously addressed in the development of any learning system. The key points of imitation are:

  • Imitation provides a wonderful survival advantage.
  • Special cells called mirror neurons and what is called deferred imitation predispose us to mimic others’ actions.
  • The drive to imitate starts in the womb.
  • Negative environments predispose us to copy negative actions.
  • Imitation can influence our standard of living.
  • Learning systems that recognize the power of imitation can use orchestrated imitation, also called apprenticeship and mentorship, to purposefully accelerate the learning process.

Read on to get a deeper understanding of how your life and learning are controlled by imitation

No Imitation, No Survival

macaws[1]Being a copycat is a good thing. Imitation provides members of a species with a much safer way to learn than trial and error, which is often a very risky proposition. Consider your ancestor who, if not able to imitate the successful survival actions of others, learned the hard way that a saber-tooth tiger was to be avoided. The genes that lacked the capacity to mimic others’ survival behaviors never made it through the sieve of evolution, because the ancestors who carried those genes became some predator’s lunch. Imitation provides such enhanced survival advantages that every species on earth that exists today, even lowly bacteria, have powerful gene configurations that predispose them to mimic survival behaviors.

Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle wrote, “Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world and learns first by imitation.” Aristotle was spot on. When compared to other beings on earth, the capacity of humans to imitate dwarfs all others, allowing humans to learn things that animals could never learn” from how to cook a crepe to how to fly an airplane. V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, maintains that the great leap in technology and art that humans have achieved over our animal cousins is directly driven by our enhanced ability to mimic.

The Importance of the “Meme”

boymimicdad[1]No discussion of imitation would be complete without addressing the “meme.” Richard Dawkins became a well-known figure in the field of biological science in 1976 by exploring this important concept. A meme is best described as a discrete unit of culture that is distributed throughout society by imitation. Examples of memes are rituals, musical trends, catch phrases, fashions, architecture, business practices, and management styles. In his famous book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins says, “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body by sperms and eggs, so Memes propagate themselves in the Meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via … imitation.” The famous saying, “when in Rome do as the Romans do,” is all about memes and cultural imitation. The best way to quickly survive and thrive in any new culture, be it a country, city, job, school, sport team, or country club, is to look around and do what the “locals” are doing. The faster we imitate the cultural norms of a new environment, the easier it is to fit into new surroundings and therefore the better our chances of thriving and surviving in that culture become.

Negative Imitation

In most cases the genetic drive to imitate cultural memes is a survival advantage, but there can be drawbacks. A major reason that people get over their heads financially is because their copycat drives to “keep up with the Joneses” propel them to buy things they don’t need and can’t afford. The house and the mortgage that are too big, the too expensive car, and the 42-inch plasma TV screen that you must have are all examples of the drive to imitate, which also pushes us towards insolvency (more on the mimicking of the standard of living in the newsletter and book Cracking the Learning Code).

Mirror Neurons

womenmirror[1]While geneticists have not yet located all the specific genes that drive us to imitate, neuroscience has discovered specific neurons that prompt us to mirror the actions of others. In the 1990s, in what many scientists consider one of the most profound neuroscientific discoveries of the last century, Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in Italy discovered mirror neurons, which propel us to engage in “monkey see monkey do” behavior. Mirror neurons have now been identified as the cells that compel us to mimic every thing from language and physical movements to emotions and cultural norms (memes). These special neurons help explain why there has been an explosion in body piercings and tattoos and why you feel depressed when you hang around depressed people and happy when you hang around happy people.

Ramachandran, a lead researcher in the efforts to understand how the brain imitates, makes this strong statement about these special cells, “I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”

Imitation and Learning Institutions

Our genetic drive to imitate and our mirror neuron system ensure that we are going to replicate the actions, language, behaviors, and emotions of those we are exposed to, whether or not we want to. Unfortunately, at this time, our learning institutions have virtually ignored the tremendous power of imitation. While educators are well aware that outside of the classroom students imitate fashion styles, body piercing, tattoos, and even pace and style of walk, our learning institutions proceed as if this most basic of our genetic urges is not switched on in the classroom. Our corporate, government and scholastic institutions could make dramatic improvements in the speed at which individuals learn if they purposefully incorporated imitation into their learning systems.

In the book, Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

The four reasons humans are better imitators than animals.

How, between 2 and 6 years of age, a child will imitate and learn an extraordinary one word for every two hours he is awake.

Why it is easier to learn a foreign language when you are living in another country.

How mirror neurons create empathy for your fellow man.

Why, just like the flu, you can “catch” the emotions and moods of others.

How positive parent-to-child “attunement” helps children develop healthy emotional responses to their worlds.

How negative “attunement” can doom your child to an unhappy and unsuccessful life as an adult.

Why depressed mothers and their children have negative brain wave patterns that mimic one another.

How you can create healthy “attunement” in your children.

How research shows that autistics lack empathy because their mirror neuron systems are dysfunctional.

Why individuals with damage to their mirror neuron system cannot perceive paralysis in other people.

How successful drug and alcohol programs take advantage of the mirror neuron system.

How cults and brainwashing can turn on our genetic predisposition to imitate.

Why an understanding of the powerful genetic drive to imitate may prompt countries that want to change the political systems of other countries, like China and Cuba, to abandon isolationism as a method of accomplishing their goals.

Why, during the stage of development called “deferred imitation,” you developed a virtual compulsion for imitating other people’s actions.

Why, hours after exiting the birth canal, newborns imitate the happy, sad, or surprised facial expressions of care givers.

How a parents’ bond with their infant is cemented when the baby goes through the “obligatory looking” stage of development.

Why a 15-month-old can almost perfectly imitate a sequence of actions that he saw performed only once – four months earlier!

Why a child’s imitation of certain acts can be “deferred” for months at a time.

Why, as adults we are so prone to duplicate our parents’ behaviors, even if we don’t want to!

Why the deferred imitation drive and the mirror neuron system can create more violent and sexual inclinations in our children.

Why it makes sense to hang out with people who are spiritually, financially, and emotionally fit.

That the most powerful benefit of apprenticeship is that it naturally activates the four stages of learning.

How the drive to mimic the current standards of living has forced adults to work longer hours, pulling them away from their families and communities, thus leaving our children with few good role models to imitate.

That one study shows the average father spends less than nine minutes a week interacting one on one with any one of his children.

That another study revealed that the average student receives only 5 minutes a week of one-on-one time with a teacher.

How, because the average child is spending over 45 hours a week in direct contact with television, video games, or the Internet, the media has become his or her main source of imitation.

How mentorships and apprenticeships are effective at creating lasting memory and behavioral change, because they piggyback on the neurological underpinnings of how we naturally learn through imitation.

How a Massachusetts study found that 80 percent of children who did not have positive role models ended up in the criminal justice or mental health systems. Conversely, 80 percent of those who had healthy mentors experienced successful lives.

How, when 1,600 students at Harvard were asked to name the college experience that had the most impact upon them, the single most common response was research mentorship.

How Xerox Corp. is using the concept of imitation to quicken corporate learning process for new hires.

How, by engaging your frontal lobes, you can override your drive to imitate the negative actions and emotions of others.

To help you understand more about why humans are such copycats, click on other Elements:

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

The Environment Is Everything to Increasing Your Adaptability / Intelligence Factor

The Power of Concepts Over Details

Associative Learning – the Power of Simultaneous Neural Firing

Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time