Why Are You Copying Me?
Ever notice someone, friend or stranger, subconsciously mimic your behavior during a conversation? Ever notice yourself doing the same? If so, you may be wondering why this happens. Inside your brain, there are specific neurons called “mirror neurons,” and research from over the past decade suggests that these neurons could possibly be responsible for our strange, automatic mimicry of one another.
Mirror neurons were first discovered in the 1990s by Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma when they were trying to measure motor neuron activity linked to specific movements while feeding a monkey. Using electrodes, they were surprised to discover that when the monkey noticed and participated in a specific action, motor neurons in an area of the monkey’s premotor cortex, called F5, fired. For example, the same individual neurons would fire when the monkey sees an experimenter put a peanut in his mouth as well as when the monkey put a peanut in it’s own mouth. Since then, researchers have been trying to determine the existence of mirror neurons within humans using neuroimaging. However, because neuroimaging can only measure millions of neurons firing at once and not singular neurons, researchers have only so far proven the existence of a human mirror system and not individual mirror neurons within the human brain.
Aside from looking at people’s actions through motor neurons, researchers have begun branching out to determine whether or not other areas of the brain participate in this mirror system. More recent research suggests that the mirror system plays a role in not only responding to other people’s actions, but their emotions as well. For instance, imaging has shown a brain region, called the anterior insula, activates both when someone feels disgusted and looks at someone else who is disgusted. Even more astonishing is that a person’s mirror neurons appear to fire differently when viewing an action occurring with one intent as opposed to another (e.g. picking up a teacup during a tea party versus picking it up when the tea party is over). The ability for mirror neurons to respond to someone’s actions in addition to their emotions and intentions, has consequently lead scientists to believe that mirror neurons, overall, are responsible for empathy.
Thus, since research shows that we possess a neural mechanism which causes us to automatically empathize with one another, it makes perfect sense for someone to naturally mimic another’s actions. You could say that our brains are always working to find connections and help us to establish relationships without us even knowing! Gee, thanks brain!