Hardwired to Imitate

Imitate me as I imitate Christ – Saint Paul

Within Christian circles, discipleship seems to be the big thing. Books are written and courses are given on how to successfully disciple someone in the Christian life. After all, this is what the great commission commands: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” The word “disciple” means learner. A disciple follows their teacher around, and observes their teaching and conduct in order to imitate and incarnate their teacher’s philosophy and lifestyle in their own lives. When we read the Gospels, this is what we see Jesus’ disciples doing, and it is understandable that Christians should seek to rediscover this ancient form of learning.  Recent developments in psychology and neuroscience, however, bring some fresh insight to the concept of discipleship.

As it turns out, humans are hardwired to imitate each other. Plato recognised this fact, and René Girard developed his concept of mimetic violence around this very observation. As Ap Dijksterhuis explains, “imitation can make us slow, fast, smart, stupid, good at maths, bad at maths, helpful, rude, polite, long-winded, hostile, aggressive, cooperative, competitive, conforming, nonconforming, conservative, forgetful, careful, careless, neat, and sloppy.” We know that children love imitation games, and that this is how they learn about life and the world around them. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated a strong positive correlation between violence watched by children in the media and violent acts performed later in life, suggesting that watching violent acts leads to performing violent acts.  It is no wonder then that Saint Paul calls his disciples to imitate him as a living model of Jesus.


Neuroscientists believe that imitation is produced through our “mirror neuron network,” which automatically mirrors the actions, intentions, and emotions of others without any conscious effort on our part. These mirror neurons become excited when observing someone performing an action, such as kicking a ball, and even more strongly when we perform that same action ourselves. Also, when we watch a sad movie or hear about someone else’s misfortune, our mirror neurons allow us to enter into these experiences by producing the emotion of sadness inside ourselves. Similarly, our mirror neurons can also replicate other emotions observed in others, a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion.” In other words, humans are hardwired to imitate each other.

Girard argues that humanity’s problem is their imitation of violent acts. The way forward, according to Girard, is for us to stop imitating violent models, and to look towards positive models to copy.  For Girard, this means forsaking the ancient rule of “an eye for an eye,” and to “turn the other cheek,” refusing to engage in destructive games of tit-for-tat. The discovery of mirror neurons, and the realisation that humans are actually hardwired to imitate each other means that we don’t need to take a course or read a book to learn how to become disciples. We are constantly imitating each other, whether we like it or not.

So what does all of this mean for the practice of discipleship? Mainly, that we should choose our models wisely, observe them carefully, and let the imitation take care of itself.




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