Researchers find non-ape species engages in rapid facial mimicry

April 5, 2013 by Bob Yirka report
An example of congruent response in RFM - RFM during a play session between an adult (left) and an immature individual (right). Credit: Scientific Reports 3, Article number: 1527 doi:10.1038/srep01527, Photo by P.F. Ferrari

( —A team of researchers made up of members from three academic centers in Italy has found the first instance of rapid facial mimicry (RFM) outside of humans and apes. In their paper published in Scientific Reports, the researchers report observation of RFM in geladas, a type of cercopithecoid or old-world monkey.

Scientists studying have long known of RFM, it's where one person mimics the facial expression of a person they are looking at, almost instantly—it's considered to be involuntary and many scientists believe it's tied to empathy. It can be seen as a sudden look of concern by a person noting concern on the face of a friend perhaps, or the mimicking of a strained smile. Until now, RFM has been seen only in humans and .

To find out if geladas exhibit RFM as well, the researchers studied a group of them residing in Germany's NaturZoo. The monkeys were watched as they engaged in play, as RFM has been tied to emotional connections. The team watched monkeys of all ages interact with one another and video recorded them for later study. Specifically, they looked to see if normal play-type face-making—different ways the monkeys open their mouths—would be mimicked by others. In studying the tapes, the researchers found that was indeed the case, the monkeys did mimic each other's in much the same way we humans do. More specifically, they found that RFM was most apparent between mothers and their infant offspring—not only did they engage in it more often, but they also did it quicker than with other pairings in the group.

Finding RFM in other species besides humans has been somewhat of a surprise to those who study the ways people interact. Because it is generally believed to be tied to empathy, most in the field assumed it was exclusive to humans. Now that RFM has been found in both apes and monkeys, researchers are left to wonder if their original theories were correct, or if new ones need to be developed. If RFM does indicate , then that would mean other species besides humans are capable of experiencing it. If it doesn't, then why is it used by any species?

Explore further: Here's looking at you, fellow!

More information: Rapid Facial Mimicry In Geladas, Scientific Reports 3, Article number: 1527 doi:10.1038/srep01527

Rapid facial mimicry (RFM) is an automatic response, in which individuals mimic others' expressions. RFM, only demonstrated in humans and apes, is grounded in the automatic perception-action coupling of sensorimotor information occurring in the mirror neuron system. In humans, RFM seems to reflect the capacity of individuals to empathize with others. Here, we demonstrated that, during play, RFM is also present in a cercopithecoid species (Theropithecus gelada). Mother-infant play sessions were not only characterized by the highest levels of RFM, but also by the fastest responses. Our findings suggest that RFM in humans have homologous not only in apes, but also in cercopitecoids. Moreover, data point to similarities in the modality in which mother-infant synchronous behaviours are expressed among primates, suggesting a common evolutionary root in the basic elements of mother-infant affective exchanges.

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1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 05, 2013
geokstr: "Look at my expression!"
lite: "I'm making the same one!"
3.2 / 5 (9) Apr 05, 2013
geokstr: "Look at my expression!"
lite: "I'm making the same one!"

But then lite reacts when he gets mimicked:
3.7 / 5 (6) Apr 05, 2013
Yep. Good video. I can see it alright.
Definite proof of something.
not rated yet Apr 06, 2013
The Answer is so apparent to anyone who's ever had a pet. Empathy itself is not just for Humans. a Mother of any species feels attachment to there young, But there have been cases of mothers accepting off spring of a different species as well. Do you not see how this is Empathy? Have you not seen how a Dog will try to cheer up its master when they are not feeling well? Many common pets do this not just Dogs either. Empathy is a Requirement for all pack animals, it directly effects how they treat each other. Without Empathy they would not care for a wounded pack member in the wild. Since a wounded member would only hinder them.

Now Separating that from RFM. First thing we should consider in this study is, Which species have facial movements linked to there emotions that we are able to identify with. Many species communicate with Body language, but not all of it is easily identified by Humans. We speak a different Body language than most other species. >char limit reached

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