But the muscle control is not the really amazing part. To appreciate the marvel of imitation tongue- poking, you have to put yourself in the position of the baby. Think about it from her point of view. You are lying in the cot wondering how to sort out all the information that is rushing into your brain from the world. You see a ‘face’ that you recognise – it has the two eyes, nose and mouth shapes that are familiar. The face stays in front of you for a time and then a pinkish bit suddenly appears. Well, what in the world is that supposed to mean?
The truly amazing skill a very young baby can show you is that she understands, in a rough sort of way, that you are playing a game with her.
A SPECIAL PIECE OF BRAIN EQUIPMENT
The baby has no mirrors, so cannot see her own tongue; and she cannot know what you are seeing, so when you poke out your tongue, she has no way of knowing which piece of her own body is the tongue, and no way of knowing that you will understand the game of imitation if she did manage to do what you are doing. So how does a baby begin to join in this game?
We now think that babies come with a special piece of equipment that makes the task of imitating very much easier
In particular sections of the brain, ‘mirror neurons’ are already in place to start working immediately after the birth.
Mirror neurons are a special type of brain cell; their role is to ‘fire’, sending signals to different parts of the body. Some neurons are specialised for movement so that they ‘fire’ (send a signal) when the baby wants to perform a particular action, such as lifting a hand or opening her lips. But mirror neurons are not ordinary neurons, since they have an additional, astounding ability: they are able to ‘fire’ when the baby sees the same action performed by another person.
This is how, we now think, the baby can see you poke out your tongue for the first time and already know how to do this action.
The mirror neurons firing away while the baby sees you then tell her how to copy the action – and before you know it, the two of you are communicating!
And this is the key, of course, to why the baby would bother imitating. When you take turns to make rude gestures at each other, this is communicating. Moving your body parts such as your tongue is the first way that your baby has of sharing a ‘conversation’ with you, something that she has been trying to do from Day One.
Mirror neurons make early communication possible, since even a one-day-old baby may be able to ‘read your mind’ in some ways with their in-built mimicking neurons.