Motor Development and Mirror Neurons


Many of a newborn baby’s movements are of involuntary character. The voluntary movements are often poorly co-ordinated, and many movements appear to be based on reflexes. Something in the environment triggers a reaction that the infants have little voluntary control over and many of the reflexes protects the infant.


The reflexes develop into more complex voluntary movements.  A baby develops the skill to reach and grasp for an object by practicing control and co-ordination of the muscles.

  • The baby uses both visual and auditory clues to help them co-ordinate the movements.
  • The infant receives information and clues about the size of the toy and distance and direction.

Reaching and Grasping

From the beginning, a baby will reach for a toy that is placed on the same side of the body as the out stretched hand.

  • A four month old baby will reach for an object that is placed on the same side, opposite side or in the middle.
  • Between three months and seven months, a baby develops and perfects the ability to reach and grasp for an object that is moving.
  • The baby can predict where a moving object is going and he can use both hands to stop a moving object.
This video from YouTube shows a 4 month old baby grasping with both hands.


Follow the Target

If you watch another person move an object from one place to another, your eyes will go to the target spot before the person’s hand has completed the movement.

  • A six-month-old baby follows the movement with their eyes.
  • A twelve month old baby can anticipate the other person’s action, and their eyes do not follow the movement as it progresses, rather they  predict where the movement will end before it is completed.
  • It has been suggested that mirror neurons fire when we perform an action and when we watch someone perform an action.
  • Instead of having to perform the action, the baby may simulate the movement in their motor cortex.
  • This makes it easier for the baby to perform the activity later.
  • The mirror neurons could be described as a shortcut to learning movements.

Mirror Neurons

The mirror neurons were discovered in the early 1990s when it was discovered that macaque monkeys who watched another monkey performed an action activated the same neurons as when they performed the action themselves.  There are different types of mirror neurons and the function of the neurons is debated. Some may be involved in grasping and reaching and others may be crucial for social development.

It has also been suggested that the neurons play a role in language abilities, and in disorders such as autism.

Piaget and Imitation 

  • Piaget suggested that action imitation requires that the infant sees both their own action and the action of the adult.
  • Research into mirror neurons questions this suggestion.

A newborn can imitate tongue movements and it has been suggested that facial movement triggers baby’s mirror neurons. The mirror neurons controls the infants tongue movements.

The research with the babies anticipated movements was conducted by Claes von Hofsten.

Photo:  Side Pose Of Baby Sitting And Looking Up by photostock

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