When I watched the video lecture on “Structures, Connections, Functions” for chapter 4, I was thrilled to see the segment on mirror neurons. I have only recently learned about this new discovery during my own research for my first blog on neurons for this course. It was through reading the article “The Neurobiology of We” that I became instantly intrigued by the new empirical findings on mirror neurons. We all have heard the old saying “monkey see, monkey do”. In the past 20 years, scientists have uncovered that there is a neurological reason behind this saying. New research suggests that there are motor neurons in our brains that become activated not only when we perform a particular action, but also when we observe someone performing the same or similar action. Scientists understand that these motor neurons called mirror neurons are essential to imitation and some even associate this ability to empathy and understanding the minds of others. Perhaps it is the mirror neurons that make it possible to attune to each others needs.
Wikipedia definition: A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.
The areas lit up in white in the picture above indicate the location of mirror neurons. It is within the premotor cortex, regions of the motor cortex in the prefrontal lobe of the brain in which mirror neurons reside.
These regions of the brain are the secondary motor cortex, the areas involved in planning and carrying out movement. As Dr. H stated in the segment on mirror neurons in her lecture video, mirror neurons were recently discovered in the early 1990s in a lab in Italy.
It was, as you will see in the very last video of this blog, that it was Italian neuroscientist Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti along with his colleagues at the University of Parma who made this accidental discovery while conducting studies in regions of the secondary motor cortex of the rhesus monkey brain. Neural activity showed specific motor neurons in those regions of the brain firing in response to the monkey performing an action such as reaching for a peanut. The same motor neurons fired when the monkey would simply watch the experimenter reach for the nut. The amazing uncovering here is the firing of the same neurons during the simple act of watching the experimenter reach for the peanut as when the monkey itself reached for the nut. This exciting new finding, as Dr. H. discussed, suggests structures in the brain that suggest imitation, a possible neural basis for social cognition.
Just as our individual neurons communicate to one another within our brains, it seems that our brains communicate to one another via mirror neurons. This leads me to believe that this type of communication provides us with the ability to perceive and feel other people’s feelings as though they are our own; therefore, providing us with an innate ability to attune to the needs of others.
In his book, “Mindsight”, Dr. Seigel describes the discovery of mirror neurons to be one of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience. He declares that mirror neurons are a hardwired system designed for us to understand the state of mind of another person which help us connect to one another. He proposes that it is through the mirror neurons that our minds unconsciously gather and interpret information about the feelings and intentions of those around us which create emotional resonance. He describes mirror neurons as “antennae” that pick up information such as feelings and intention.
Below is a video of Dr. Siegel explaining mirror neurons in depth, specifically how an intention behind an action activates these neurons. He describes that beyond observation, we see the intention of the behavior observed, which creates the capacity to imitate behavior.
In an article “Imitation, Empathy and Motor Neurons”, Marco Iacoboni, presents experiments conducted on higher and lower levels of imitation in social behavior. One hypothesis tested suggested the more people imitate others, the more concern they develop for other people’s feelings. This experiment found a strong correlation between the tendency to empathize and the amount of imitative behavior displayed by the participants. Does this mean that through imitation, we are able to feel what other people feel, attune to the needs of others as we do our own, and respond with compassion to the emotional states of those around us? I believe so.
The link below is to the article “Imitation, Empathy and Motor Neurons” by Marco Iacoboni.
And here is another video to watch by Dr. Siegel which explains the function of mirror neurons in relation to empathy.
It is my personal belief that we are hardwired with these capabilities and that we are meant to have interpersonal relationships that are deeply meaningful, connected, and filled with compassion for one another. It has been through my work as a massage therapist, physical therapist assistant and yoga instructor that I have learned to appreciate feeling other people’s feelings and knowing what they need through attunement. I have always trusted this ability and have not questioned much where it comes from; however, it is truly amazing to think about our hardwired mirror system and what is happening on a neural level when when these qualities are present.
This PBS video below has been my favorite to watch throughout my research on the roles of mirror neurons. It even suggests that autism may be linked to “broken” mirror neurons. I can only imagine the exciting new discoveries to come from the continuing research on mirror neurons.
Mirror neuron. (2014, July 22). Wikipedia. Retrieved July 25, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron
Siegel, D. J. (2012). Mindsight: change your brain and your life (New ed.). Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications.