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Of the Power of Imitation.
THE observations hitherto made on the principle of Sympathetic Imitation relate chiefly to our propensity or proneness to imitate; a circumstance in human nature which has been remarked and illustrated by different writers, both ancient and modern. The power by which the imitation is, in certain cases, accomplished, although a subject not less interesting than the corresponding propensity, has not yet, as far as I know, attracted the notice of any philosopher whatever.
It was before observed, that the powers of imitation displayed, in so extraordinary a degree by the mimic, seem to be only a continuation of capacities possessed by all men in the first years of their existence; but which, in most individuals, are, in a great measure, lost from disuse, soon after the period of infancy. The consideration, therefore, of some circumstances connected with this peculiar talent, may perhaps throw light on the general or common principles of the human frame.
When a mimic attempts to copy the countenance of a person whom he never saw before, what are the means which he employs in order to effectuate his purpose? Shall we suppose, that his efforts are merely tentative and experimental; or, in other words, that he tries successively every possible modification of his features, till he finds, at last, by the information of a mirror, that he has succeeded in the imitation of the original? Nobody can, for a moment, believe this to be the case, who has attended in the slightest degree to the subject. On the contrary, it is a fact universally known, that the imitation is often perfectly successful in the very first trial; and that it is not from a mirror, but from his own internal consciousness, that the mimic judges of its correctness. I acknowledge, at the same time, that the fact is sometimes otherwise, and that instances occur, in which the best mimics are found to make many successive efforts before they accomplish their end; or in which, after all their efforts, the attempt proves ultimately abortive. But it will not be disputed that the former statement holds in general, where the propensity to mimickry is strong; and even where exceptions take place, there is commonly, from the first, such an approximation to the resemblance aimed at, as sufficiently demonstrates, that, how much soever experience may be useful in finishing the portrait, the most
important part of the process must be referred to causes of a different description.
The fact seems to be perfectly similar with respect to the imitation of sounds. A good mimic is able, the first time he hears another person speak, to exhibit, on the spot, an exact copy or fac simile of what he has heard, with all the peculiarities of tone and accent which accompany it; and even when he fails in the attempt, he commonly approaches very nearly to the original which he copies. A child of a good ear, and a flexible voice, catches almost instantaneously any simple air which he hears; or, at least succeeds after a very few trials. The approximation, in such cases, it is of great importance to remark, is a thing not less wonderful than if the copy were perfect, and proves not less forcibly, that in those imitative efforts, we are not guided by experience alone.
I am disposed to lay peculiar stress on this last consideration, because superficial inquirers, in their zeal to explain away the phenomena commonly described to INSTINCT, have, of late, been strangely led to conclude, that wherever experience can be shown to have any share in directing our actions, it is idle to have recourse to the operation of any other cause. In this way, it is a very easy matter to establish their doctrine, because, in general, Nature has done nothing more, either for man, or for the lower animals, than was absolutely necessary for enabling them to turn their experience to account, seldom giving a perfectly precise determination to their efforts, but invariably performing for both, the essential office which Lord Bacon would have called the Abscisio Infiniti ;* and confining their experiments within such narrow limits as are suited to their respective capacities. Thus the lamb, although the moment after it is dropped, it is guided by nature, (probably through the medium of the sense of smelling,) to the neighbourhood of that organ where its nourishment is to be found, rarely, if ever, fixes, till after repeated trials, on one of the teats. An ear for music, in our own species, is unquestionably, in a very great measure, the gift of nature; yet, where such a capacity exist, how wonderfully may it be improved by culture! Something analogous to this seems to take place in the act of bodily imitation, nature directing our efforts near the mark, and leaving the task of hitting it with precision to our own industry. In such cases, the most interesting problem for the examination of the philosopher, is not, whether experience
An expression which Bacon applies to some of the expedients in the art of Technical Memory.
does not contribute something to render the operations of instinct effectual, (a point about which, in general, there can be little doubt,) but whether experience is of itself sufficient to explain the whole difficulty, a question upon which I am inclined to think, that they who have considered the subject the most deeply, will be the slowest to pronounce a decided opinion in the affirmative. The prosecution of this hint would lead me to the consideration of a most important distinction among our instincts, according as they are pure or mixed; but this argument more properly belongs to another part of my general design.
Nor is there any thing in the instinctive process, which I suppose to take place in this instance, more astonishing than what we experience in every voluntary motion of the body. I will to move my arm, and the requisite machinery is instantly arranged and put in action for the purpose. All that I think of is a particular end. The means by which it is accomplished are neither combined by my reason, nor are they subjected to my scrutiny. The mimic, in like manner, when he attempts to imitate the countenance of another, conceives strongly in his mind the portrait he wishes to exhibit. He thinks only of the end; and a few efforts to accomplish it conduct him by a process which philosophy cannot explain, to the effect which he aims at. In the latter of these instances, the effect, from being more complicated, and from the comparative rarity of the talent on which it depends, may, at first, strike us with greater surprise; but that it is, in reality, an effect of the same kind with those which every voluntary movement of our limbs presents to our notice, will appear on a very slight comparison of the two phenomena.
As in all our common voluntary exertions we have only to will the end, and the means are arranged without our co-operation, I conclude, that in mimickry, the mimic forms a lively conception of the features he wishes to copy; and, by repeated efforts, succeeds in producing the desired effect. The case is similar when he imitates voices. He remembers and conceives strongly what he wishes to imitate, and the muscles necessary for that purpose are, as in other cases, put into action in obedience to his will. The same thing happens when a singer, who has a correct ear, catches a musical air, after hearing it once played or sung by another person.
It appears from a great variety of facts, that we lose, by disuse, the command of many muscles which were apparently meant to be subservient to voluntary motion. Different travellers have taken notice of the extraordinary power which są
vages have in moving their toes. I myself remember to have seen, more than twenty years ago, an Anglo-American girl who was exhibited in Edinburgh, and who supplied, in a great measure, the want of the hand by means of the foot. I recollect, in particular, to have seen her cut watch-papers, of a great variety of patterns, with a pair of scissors, an operation which she executed with great neatness, and with astonishing rapidity. It may be worth while to add, that in order to preserve entire the sensibility and the pliability of her foot, (which approached very nearly to those of the hand in other individuals,) she had been obliged to give up almost entirely the practice of walking. This might be owing partly to her anxious care of the white leather gloves she wore on her feet, about the cleanness of which she seemed to be finically nice.
Every body must, in the circle of their acquaintance, have met with individuals who had the power, by an act of the will, to put their thumbs out of joint. I knew intimately a gentleman who had acquired this knack, and who used frequently to display it unconsciously when engaged in any argument. He told me that it was possessed by every boy who had been bred at the same school with him; and that it was the common practice, as soon as their master's eye was fixed on his book, for the head boy of the class to give the signal, when all his schoolfellows held up their thumbs, and were ready, upon a second signal, to execute this manœuvre.
The inference I draw from these facts is this:-That, in the case of the mimic, many of the muscles of the countenance, which, in other men, are immoveable, have acquired from exercise a certain degree of mobility, so that when the mimic wishes to assume a particular look, he has only to will the end, and his wish is immediately accomplished.
It is not, however, always, that the mimic succeeds at first. Some who are still living must remember to have heard the late Lord Cullen (the most perfect of all mimics) mention the difficulty he experienced in seizing the features of Lord Kames, when, after many fruitless efforts, he succeeded all at once, in the course of a tour with a friend in the Highlands of Scotland. The moment he had acquired the command of the hitherto dormant set of muscles on which the effect depended, he knew, by consciousness, that he had hit the resemblance; and he appealed to his companion in the carriage for the fidelity of the portrait. It certainly became, in process of time, one of the most accurate of all his imitations.*
* I think it proper to add, in justice to Lord Cullen, (a person certainly of great
With this power of imitation, our interpretation of natural signs, so far as it is the result of an instinct for which experience alone will not account, seems to me to have an intimate connexion. The following very slight hints will be suf ficient to show that this idea is not altogether groundless.*
That our interpretation of natural signs is, in no case, the result of pure or unmixed instinct, is abundantly obvious. Indeed, I do not know of any philosopher who has been so hardy as to maintain explicitly the contrary opinion;-who has asserted, (for example,) that the natural signs of Rage, in the countenance of another person, would convey an idea of that passion to a man who had never experienced its workings within his own breast. The real problem with respect to this very interesting part of the human constitution is, in truth, of a very different nature from what most theorists seem of late to have supposed; and the solution of it, (if I do not greatly deceive myself) lies deeper in the Philosophy of the Mind, than they are willing to allow.
Among those who contend, that experience alone furnishes a sufficient explanation of the phenomenon in question, two different suppositions may be formed with respect to the manner in which it operates; and to these suppositions I cannot
learning and accomplishments,) that he had given up entirely the exercise of mimickry (even in the company of his most intimate friends) many years before he was promoted to the Bench. Sometimes, indeed, in telling a story, he would forget himself for a moment, and unconsciously betray those marvellous powers which he seemed anxious to conceal. I recollect, in particular, that, long after the death of Mr. Adam Smith, I have been startled more than once, by hearing the very tones of his voice, accompanied by all the peculiarities of his look and
* See page 12 of this Volume.
† Dr. Reid has been frequently charged with maintaining this doctrine; and it must be owned, that the enumeration he has made of the different kinds of natural signs afforded too plausible a ground to a captious adversary for drawing this inference with respect to his real opinion.-See his Inquiry into the Human Mind, Chap. v. Sect. 3. Of this I have been long fully aware. The following sentences I copy verbatim from an Essay on the Object of Natural Philosophy which I read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh more than forty years ago. See the History of the Society prefixed to the first volume of their Transactions.
"I suspect that there is foundation for a farther subdivision of natural signs than "is made by the learned and ingenious Dr. Reid in his Inquiry. In the case of "the perception of hardness, our sensation not only suggests to us the external qua"lity, but it is in this way we first get the idea of it. The case seems to be diffe"rent with respect to the natural expressions of passion. They are interpreted, "indeed, instinctively; but our first ideas of the passions are probably derived "from our own consciousness. I cannot persaude myself that the natural signs "of rage would convey an idea of that passion to a man who had never felt it. *** No modification of countenance could convey the idea of rage to a man "who had never been conscious of that passion; but, after having acquired the "idea of this passion from his own consciousness, he is able instinctively to inter"pret its natural expression.”