Imprinting (from English “to imprint”) is a term that indicates the mode of learning that takes place within a specific time of life of a puppy, which is said “sensitive stage“.
In this stage the puppy is biologically predisposed to learn and patterns of behavior are fixed in him.
Practically, the mechanism of imprinting consists of this: in the puppy there are some innate behavior patterns. If they are stimulated to appear at a certain stage of life, they will reinforce, or they will become “imprinted” in him.
The term was coined by Konrad Lorenz, the founder of modern ethology, following his studies on wild geese. The episode that led him to discover the existence of the “establishment of a specific behavioral model” (as he called it) was the birth of his little goose Martina.
Just broke the goose egg with its beak and looked out, Lorenz crouched down and walked away mimicking the wild geese. The amazing thing is that the goose followed him immediately and that from that moment on, he refused to be placed next to her mother for her mother was Konrad Lorenz and followed him wherever he went. Hence the great ethologist including that geese identify as their “mother” the first to be born soon as they see moving. It does not matter if he has a white beard, he has no wings or webbed feet: for geese their mother is, irreversibly, the first to be moved in front of them when they came to the world.
Understanding the learning characteristics for imprinting, it makes it clear how important is everything that a puppy lives in this phase of his life, during which Lorenz called, not surprisingly, “sensitive stage”.
First, what is learned through the imprinting is irreversebile. To an unique environmental stimulus, same behavior there will always be. In fact, he had to adopt Martina, because there was no way to demonstrate that he wasn’t the “real” mother.
Secondly, the imprinting is active only in a certain time of life. For instance, for puppy dogs and puppy cats, this phase is between the third and twelfth week for the dog and the third to the seventh week for the cat.
Furthermore, in the imprinting phase, the learning experiences change the real structure of the brain. If the nervous system of the puppy does not receive the stimuli capable of activating the nerve connections in charge to recognize them, all the synapses (which are the connections between nerve cells) will not take place. Unfortunately, after this stage of his life, this won’t happen again.
This means that the adult animal won’t recognize its puppy.
Does the imprinting exist in human beings?
Of course, but it is different. This type of imprinting is always related to the primary stage of life but it is lighter. It is visible not in the recognizing process but in behaviors.
This aspect embraces an other discipline, named anthropology and an other category named development of social behaviors in human beings.