“Monkey see, monkey do,” someone tells you in a demeaning manner. Well, well, tell them to tell that to the monkeys who have been using imitation as a successful evolutionary strategy for millions of years. And their success has been our success since we are all descended from apes; although it does show more in some people. There is even a recognized phenomenon called the “hundredth monkey effect” that describes, based on observations of macaque monkeys in Japan, how a new behavior or idea is spread rapidly by unexplained means from one group to the entire group or even to other related groups once a critical number of members of that group exhibit the new behavior or espouse the new idea.

Like it or not, we are all copycats from the start; genetically replicated from our mother and father. Thank goodness that DNA has mastered the art of copying, since mutations, like cancer, can be lethal; or just plain funny. Consider the flies that carry Hox mutations that sprout legs, instead of antennae, on their foreheads. My guess is that they do better headstands than their fellow flies..!

A child learns best when he or she is able to imitate the lead of another. Parents know this instinctively and will come up with the silliest of sounds and trippiest of faces hoping their babies will mimic them. Imitation is the foremost tool for learning in babies. Research shows that when a baby simply watches an adult use her hand to touch a toy, already the hand area of the baby’s brain lights up on a brain scan. Baby see, baby do; just like monkey.

The genius of a Montessori school system, which my son is a product of, is that children of different age groups are placed in a learning environment together, allowing for younger kids to learn by copying older kids, who themselves learn by copying teachers in the classroom. ‘Copywork’ – physically copying a selected passage by hand or computer- is still a great technique to use in this modern, fast-paced, digital world. Aside from muscle memory, retention, and attention to detail, it helps familiarize students with the grammar and rhythm of effective writing. It is a technique that Jack London and Rudyard Kipling ascribe their success in writing to. Children see, children do; just like monkey.

Unfortunately for monkeys, humans are more accurate social imitators than them; or than any other animal yet tested. Other species don’t even come close to our speed of learning by imitation, retaining what is learned, and pulling information together from widely separated locations in our brain. These are facilitated by ‘mirror neurons’ discovered in 1992 by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Palma in Italy. 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 behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself doing the action. And these brain cells do not just allow us to mimic motor acts, but to also quickly and instinctively know each other’s intentions. They grant us the ability to empathize. Biologically, to understand myself, I must recognize myself in other people. We are just two sides of the same coin…!
Our civilization’s guaranteed means for survival has always been quite simple- namely to just copy the other guy or gal. We are social creatures; and almost everything we know and do involves shared knowledge from past and present people- billions and billions of them! And the more, the many-er; as the more people there are, the more information gets stored in their collected minds, the more the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ grows. Experiments show that people with average intelligence can brainstorm better and come up with better solutions than smarter individuals who work alone.

Don’t get me wrong; individual or asocial learning is important and can be a source of innovation, but it is social learning that diffuses such innovations. Copying is what people have always done because it is not only easy, it is effective. Asocial learning is basically trial and error; so why not let others bear the risk of working out what to do, then copy those who succeed. Your ability to copy, and to do it well, will always serve you best.

And note that like any other medium, you can copy things that will be useful to you or not. People can and will copy bad behavior; history has shown this time and time again. Good people can do evil things when part of a crowd or a mob. Professional agitators know this and will try to get you to be that ‘hundredth monkey.’

I do believe, that with social media, we are actually evolving to think less rigorously as individuals and to think more as a group. This global brain is evolving as the tool that will solve the equally global problems we face. The more people around us and the more interconnected we are, the more potential brain storage area there is; and the greater the chance for solutions and innovation to occur.

So keep copying. Copy the majority, the successful, and the happy. Copy when individual learning is too risky, costly, or uncertain. Copy the elderly who have’ been there and done that.’ Copy something that is better; copy if you are dissatisfied with a current situation; and especially copy from good social learners. What happens to most people will probably happen to you; so copy what they did if they weathered it successfully. Keep learning, and learn by imitation. There are no mistakes, only lessons; especially for skydivers and virgins who can afford to make a mistake only once.

And after a long day of copying at work, hit that karaoke bar or bust out your karaoke machine at home, and do your best Frank Sinatra imitation and sing, “My Way.”


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