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We Don’t Learn to Imitate… We Imitate to Learn

My fifteen month old daughter never ceases to amaze me. More so, being a Behavior Architect by profession I am constantly and minutely observing her behavior.

One such observation is about how difficult I find teaching her anything, while there is so much she is learning everyday.

For instance, we never taught her to eat with her own hands, but how every time that we try feeding her something, she wants to do it with her own hands. Where on earth did she learn to dance from. We never do it at home. We never tried teaching her. Of course there is the Always ON television at home.  The list is endless. 

From a scientific perspective, this form of learning is from simple Imitation. From my perspective, what is interesting about this form of learning is the form’s Effortlessness.

This is effortless learning.


“During the Critical period (0-8 years by some suggestion), an important nerve growth factor, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), turns on the Nucleus Basalis, a part of the brain that allows us to focus our attention, and keeps it on through out the critical learning period. Once turned on the Nucleus Basalis, helps us not only pay attention, but remember what we are experiencing. It allows cortical map differentiation and change to take place effortlessly. At the end of the critical period, once the main neuronal connections are laid down, BNDF is released in such quantity, that it performs the role of turning off the Nucleus Basalis, leading to end of the magical epoch of effortless learning”  – Norman Doidge’s Book – The Brain That Changes Itself

Scientific literature also suggests that this form of learning is mostly limited to the critical period of development which lasts between the age of 0-8 years.

My belief is that we never stop imitating to learn. The pace of learning though changes. And hence while that behavior is super-evident in the case of children, it may not be so evident in the case of adults. Equally the brain science that that explains this behavior amongst adults could be different from that amongst children. Refer Mirror Neurons

“A mirror neuron is a neuron  that fires  both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. The function of the mirror system is a subject of much speculation. Many researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology consider that this system provides the physiological mechanism for the perception action coupling. These mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation.”

Have we not come across lots of managers whose behavior is very similar to their previous bosses. Have we not come across cricket anchors who speak so much like Harsha Bhogle or Michael Slater.  Have we not come across actors who have strong reflections of the past super stars. Have we not come across batsmen playing cricket shots that look like Carbon Copy of Sachin Tendulkar strokes. At a more subtler level, we know how couples start displaying traits of each other in their behavior. All of this and more are just ways in which imitation is continuing to drive learning at a non-conscious level, effortlessly.

While we continue to imitate and learn, the aspect that interests me a lot is our awareness or the absence of awareness of being imitated.

How aware are we as teachers, bosses, coaches, CEOs,  that we are being imitated. And that the behavior of the learners are likely to reflect our own behavior, as much as our teaching.

How much of this aspect of ‘Effortless’ learning is being put into practice.

Wonder why teachers in Schools spend most of their free time in the teacher’s rooms, and not making themselves seen as reading in Libraries.

Is it possible to actively intervene and drive this form of effortless learning, be it in organizations, public spaces, schools or academies.

Worth Exploring!

Image Source: Child Mode

#effortlesslearning #learning #mirrorneurons

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