How the Hen House Turns: Imprinting and the Importance of Hands

How the Hen House Turns:
Imprinting and the Importance of Hands
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

Animal behaviorists now agree that we humans are not very different from animals in many ways—like our susceptibility to imprinting. Some call it “phase-sensitive learning” or “filial imprinting.”

I doubt many animal behaviorists would argue with the psychologists who suggest that young humans (and young animals) learn behavior from their parents and  that environmental factors and experience can influence brain development.

A recent more ominous finding that humans abused in childhood develop more methyl groups on their DNA, which can be passed on for two generations, at least. No wonder the consequences of abuse are so hard to overcome.

In earlier Hen House stories, I have described the lasting effects of imprinting on newly hatched birds. We raised the hatchling First Turkey and the chickens Gwendolyn and Americia with weeks of constant care, and they remained bonded to us for life.

Now, during these gorgeous blue-sky mornings, I sit on the bench by the stock tank while the small ducks (Ms. Ritz and Kiebler) take their morning splash and preen. As soon as Gwendolyn chicken sees me, she runs to the bench and hops into my lap. Sitting beside me on the bench so I can read won’t do. She doesn’t tolerate the book’s competition for attention.

There she sits snuggled in my left arm, and we have a quiet conversation. “Brret brrrip bp.” “Yes I think so.” “Brrup brrp.” “Probably.” This goes on for 10 minutes. If she doesn’t fall asleep, the conversation changes. “Brraak braak braak.” “Okay,” says I, and Gwendolyn hops down to continue her endless hunt for rare insects.

Such imprinting was first observed in chickens in the 19th century. Then Konrad Lorenz  discovered that greylag goose hatchlings bonded to their first movable stimulus during the first 13 to 16 hours of life. 

Don and I experienced the power of imprinting early in our marriage. My dad always did the garbage and scrubbed the kitchen floor. Don’s mother always did those chores. Oops, then Aha! We assume that the world we experience as youth is the way it “should” be.

That’s why I worry about young children who are introduced to I-pad games before they have experienced using their hands by building real objects with blocks, Legos, Tinker Toys and cardboard boxes. I was told by a savvy four-year-old that blocks were baby toys.

In her book called “Yom Hands,” Connie Leas explores the importance of hands in brain development. She reports that some engineering firms will not hire people who have not grown up with physical hand manipulation play.

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