Neonatal imitation is the matching of (often facial) gestures by newborn infants. Some studies suggest that performance of facial gestures is due to general arousal, which may produce false positives on neonatal imitation assessments. Here we examine whether arousal is linked to facial gesturing in newborn infant rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta). We tested 163 infants in a neonatal imitation paradigm in their first postnatal week and analyzed their lipsmacking gestures (a rapid opening and closing of the mouth), tongue protrusion gestures, and yawn responses (a measure of arousal). Arousal increased during dynamic stimulus presentation compared to the static baseline across all conditions, and arousal was higher in the facial gestures conditions than the nonsocial control condition. However, even after controlling for arousal, we found a condition-specific increase in facial gestures in infants who matched lipsmacking and tongue protrusion gestures. Thus, we found no support for the arousal hypothesis. Consistent with reports in human newborns, imitators' propensity to match facial gestures is based on abilities that go beyond mere arousal. We discuss optimal testing conditions to minimize potentially confounding effects of arousal on measurements of neonatal imitation.
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Paukner, Annika; Pedersen, Eric J; and Simpson, Elizabeth A, "Testing the arousal hypothesis of neonatal imitation in infant rhesus macaques." (2017). Psychology and Neuroscience Faculty Contributions. 25.