Mirror Neuron On the Wall

in Opinion
November 13th, 2013

Most of us have heard about them but only a few appreciate the power of them. It was more than 20 years ago that scientists discovered the fascinating mirror neurons. It was at the University of Parma, Italy where the first glimpse of mirror neurons occurred. The study’s focus was actually to examine motor neurons involved in hand and mouth actions in macaque monkeys. The basic procedure of the experiment involved monkeys reaching for food while researchers recorded firing in particular neurons. What these researchers found was that some neurons actually fired even when the monkey was not moving but was just watching someone else perform an action. So, one may easily deduce that mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when an animal performs an action and when an animal observes someone else perform an action. Nearly 20 years after the initial macaque monkey experiment mirror neurons studies are still generating fascinating results. The reason for this fascination is that mirror neurons are at the base of extremely important functions such as socialization, empathy and teaching.

Mirror Baby (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Mirror_baby.jpg)

More recent discoveries have shown that mirror neurons are critical in the interpretation of both facial expressions and body language. Moreover mirror neurons enable us to understand, empathize and socialize with others. As studies have shown, autistic individuals have trouble understanding other people´s intentions and feelings. Autistic individuals cannot understand the intentions of others while observing their actions. This is believed, at least in part, because autistic individuals have a malfunctioning mirror neuron system. This malfunctioning system disables these individuals’ ability to even try and comprehend someone else’s actions based on observation.  In contrast to autistic individuals, people with well functioning mirror neuron system have no problem understanding other people’s intentions, which makes mirror neurons so important.

If you come to think about it, mirror neurons can be held responsible for millions of years of human evolution and development. Observational learning has been at the base of all human groups and societies. The ability to observe someone perform an action and then easily learn how to repeat this action is directly correlated with mirror neurons. Thousands of years ago when most societies were nomads, individuals in the groups had to learn how to use tools, build fires, hunt, etc. in order to survive. Others learned all these tasks quickly, most likely due to a strong mirror neuron system. The sudden development of the mirror neuron system allowed human evolution to skyrocket. Discoveries and inventions spread rapidly through groups and across generations.

It might be an overstatement but essentially mirror neurons have shaped the world, as we know it. This complex set of neurons give us the ability to learn, socialize and empathize with others. They allow us to learn in a mater of seconds and facilitate communication with others. Research into this complex system continues and with it will come fascinating discoveries and insight.

-Roberto Barroso Luque

Sources and Further Reading

Mirror Neurons -BrainFacts.org

The Neurons that Shaped Civilization -TED

Giacomo Rizzolatti-Mirror NeuronsGoCognitive

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