See What I’m Saying:

The Extraordinary Powers of our Five Senses


Chapter 9: The Highest Form of Flattery


Courtesy of Marilyn Michaels

Impressionist Marilyn Michaels uses sense memory to first mimic the voices of celebrities, and to then fully embody them.


        Whenever you interact with someone, you subtly imitate aspects of  his or her mannerisms, speech, facial expressions, and behavior. Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself inadvertently imitating the accent of someone you’re talking with. Every now and then, you may notice yourself standing with the same posture as the person your talking to. But you subtly mimic all the time, and most of it occurs without your conscious awareness. And all this mimicking has a purpose. It facilitates your perceptual, coordinative, and social success. Research over the last  10 years shows that one of your most important implicit perceptual skills is your ability to integrate subtle information about other people —information that allows you to covertly and overtly imitate behavior.

        You’ve already learned about your skills to implicitly mimic facial expressions. Covert facial mimicry allows you to better recognize the expressions and emotions of other people. But this type of imitation may very well apply to much of what you see—and hear—people do. And this imitation may have important perceptual and social functions.

        It’s been known for some time that we mimic the nonverbal behavior of people with whom we’re interacting. Research in the 1970s showed that students tended to imitate the postures of the teachers with whom they’re  talking. Whether standing or sitting, the students were shown to lean in the same way as their teachers as they  conversed. The students would also often cross their legs and arms if their teacher was doing the same.  This imitation tended  to increase as  the positive rapport grew between student and teacher. A similar increase in posture matching has been shown for therapists and their patients over the course of treatment.

        Your imitation extends to an action you rarely think about: your breathing. Research suggests that even while sitting comfortably in a chair, your respiratory rate would increase as much as 30 percent if you watched a video of someone vigorously exercising. This would be especially likely if you were watching someone run on a treadmill with an increasing speed. Perhaps just going to the gym to watch someone work out is better than not going at all.

        But if exercising by proxy is still too much trouble, you have another imitative option for keeping fit. You can  dine with light eaters. Research suggests that you inadvertently imitate the eating behavior of the people you’re with, eating more or less depending on how much they eat. This research is generally conducted in laboratory settings and involves eating and interacting with strangers: not the most natural context to reveal your true eating behavior. But imitative eating has been observed in multiple experiments and regardless of whether subjects are sated or food-deprived for 24 hours. And in all cases, subjects were unaware that the amount they ate mimicked that of another person.