This article is about the psychological term. For other meanings, see imprinting.
Imprinting is the term used in psychology and ethology to describe any kind of phase-sensitive learning (learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior. It was first used to describe situations in which an animal or person learns the characteristics of some stimulus, which is therefore said to be "imprinted" onto the subject.
The best known form of imprinting is filial imprinting, in which a young animal learns the characteristics of its parent. It is most obvious in nidifugous birds, who imprint on their parents and then follow them around. It was first reported in domestic chickens, by the 19th century amateur biologist Douglas Spalding. It was rediscovered by the early ethologist Oskar Heinroth, and studied extensively and popularised by his disciple Konrad Lorenz working with greylag geese. Lorenz demonstrated how incubator-hatched geese would imprint on the first suitable moving stimulus they saw within what he called a "critical period" of about 36 hours shortly after hatching. Most famously, the goslings would imprint on Lorenz himself (more specifically, on his wading boots), and he is often depicted being followed by a gaggle of geese who had imprinted on him. Filial imprinting is not restricted to animals that are able to follow their parents, however; in child development the term is used to refer to the process by which a baby learns who its mother and father are. The process is recognised as beginning in the womb, when the unborn baby starts to recognise its parents' voices (Kissilevsky et al, 2003).
The filial imprinting of birds was a primary technique used to create the movie Le Peuple Migrateur, which contains a great deal of footage of migratory birds in flight. The birds imprinted on handlers, who wore yellow jackets and honked horns constantly. The birds were then trained to fly along with a variety of aircraft, primarily ultralights.
The Italian hang-glider pilot Angelo d'Arrigo extended this technique. D'Arrigo noted that the flight of a non-motorised hang-glider is very similar to the flight patterns of migratory birds: both use updrafts of hot air (thermal currents) to gain altitude which then permits soaring flight over distance. He used this fact to enable the re-introduction into the wild of threatened species of raptors.
Birds which are hatched in captivity have no mentor birds to teach them their traditional migratory routes. D'Arrigo had one solution to this problem. The chicks hatched under the wing of his glider, and imprinted on him. Subsequently, he taught the fledglings to fly and to hunt. The young birds followed him not only on the ground (as with Lorenz) but also in the air as he took the path of various migratory routes. He flew across the Sahara and over the Mediterranean Sea to Sicily with eagles, from Siberia to Iran (5,500 km) with a flock of Siberian cranes, and over Everest with Nepalese eagles. In 2006, he worked with a condor in South America.
In a similar project, orphaned Canada Geese were trained to their normal migration route by the Canadian ultralight enthusiast Bill Lishman, as shown in the fact based movie drama Fly Away Home.
Sexual imprinting is the process by which a young animal learns the characteristics of a desirable mate. For example, male zebra finches appear to prefer mates with the appearance of the female bird that rears them, rather than mates of their own type (Immelmann, 1972). The famous psychologist John Money called it the lovemap.
Sexual imprinting on inanimate objects is a popular theory concerning the development of sexual fetishism. For example, according to this theory, imprinting on shoes or boots (as with Lorenz' geese) would be the cause of shoe fetishism.
Reverse sexual imprinting is also seen: when two people live in close domestic proximity during the first few years in the life of either one, both are desensitized to later close sexual attraction. This phenomenon, known as the Westermarck effect, was first formally described by anthropologist Edvard Westermarck. The Westermarck effect has since been observed in many places and cultures, including in the Israeli kibbutz system, and the Chinese Shim-pua marriage customs, as well as in biological-related families.
In the case of the Israeli kibbutzim (collective farms), children were reared somewhat communally in peer groups-groups based on age, not biological relation. A study of the marriage patterns of these children later in life revealed that out of the nearly 3,000 marriages that occurred across the kibbutz system, only fourteen were between children from the same peer group. Of those fourteen, none had been reared together during the first six years of life. This result provides evidence not only that the Westermarck effect is demonstrable, but that it operates during the critical period from birth to the age of six (Shepher, 1983).
When close proximity during this critical period does not occur-for example, where a brother and sister are brought up separately, never meeting one another-they may find one another highly sexually attractive when they meet as adults. This phenomenon is known as genetic sexual attraction. This observation is consistent with the theory that the Westermarck effect evolved because it suppressed inbreeding. This attraction may also be seen with cousin couples.
Freud argued that as children, members of the same family naturally lust for one another, making it necessary for societies to create incest taboos, but Westermarck argued the reverse, that the taboos themselves arise naturally as products of innate attitudes. It has been claimed that subsequent research over the years has supported Westermarck's observations and interpretation (; see here for other concrete studies), but still some psychoanalysts maintain or modify the Freudian concept.
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