Mirror Neurons

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.

definition mirror neurons 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.[1][2][3] Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

mirror image

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.

Monkey Mirror Neurons
 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.

Marc Iacoboni. “Imitation, Empathy and Mirror Neurons”. Annual Review of Psychology. September 15, 2008. Retrieved July 25, 2014. http://www.adineu.com.ar/IMITATION%20EMPATHY%20AND%20MIRROR%20NEURONS%20IACOBONI.pdf



8 thoughts on “Mirror Neurons

  1. trhicks22

    Great blog topic!!! I too found mirror neurons to be very interesting! As you had said I knew we were capable of doing what someone else does and being able to understand someone else’s feelings, but I never questioned where it came from. It was interesting to learn where this comes from in your blog! It is great to be able to feel and understand what others feel. Us being able to watch someone do something and us be able to complete the task as well is a great trait to have. It helps us to be able to learn new things everyday!

  2. kesnyder

    You provided a great, thorough description of mirror neurons. I have heard about them, in very general terms, in the past. They are a truly amazing discovery, an explanation for so much. I wonder if they have anything to do with twins and their ability to, sort of ‘know’, what their sibling is thinking/feeling. To think of the possibility that autism could be caused by ‘broken’ mirror neurons is astounding. If they can make this link maybe scientists can figure out how to prevent it.

  3. chelleb52 Post author

    You raise a great question, Kelly! It would be very interesting to know more about mirror neurons in relation to twins. I wonder if the strength of connection of these neurons are greater amongst twins. And yes, to think about the possibilities to come around research on mirror neurons and autism is super exciting!

  4. smreed2014

    Mirror Neurons was one of the topics that interested me too. I know we have only found them in monkeys so far, but I believe they are in humans as well. I believe this because I think the brain is trying to understand the actions of others as like a protective mechanism. Like when in a heate4d argument with some one and you see them make a fist, a person will get ready to duck even though that fist was never raised or swung. I think when you see the person make the fist the mirror neurons fire at the action they seen fist do before and then prepare itself to protect the body from the blow it thinks might be coming. This can also be for learning. How many times have you watched someone do something and then upon you trying to do it too, you already felt like you knew what you were doing even though you never did it? These neurons could be like they think, the connection we have with others and their actions even though we never experience what they have. I always finding myself relating to people and situations I never been in. I guess I got a lot of mirror neurons.

  5. ahoffman8140

    In a psychology class I took during the spring semester, our professor presented us with the question, Can a person truly empathize with another human being? A lot of the class felt that a person can not empathize with another person based on the definition that empathize means to understand and share the feelings of others. They felt that the word empathize was taking it to far but a person can show compassion. After reading your blog I still stand on the side I took during that class. I do feel that a person can empathize. At the time I did not realize that mirror neurons are what could help us do so and I did learn a lot from your blog. If mirror neurons allow us to interrupt and understand another persons emotions how can we not empathize with them? If our motor neurons are picking up on the other persons intentions and/or feelings than we should be able to relate and react the way we would react if it was us. It is a very interesting topic!

  6. Alicia Cruz

    Excellent topic! I was curious about the function of these neurons. You have great information on the topic, and your videos have also helped me understand them better. On the information you provided under “Imitation, Empathy and Motor Neurons”, I find it a bit difficult to believe that someone can feel what I am feeling, even if they went through the same situation that I went through. We can understand the pain, but feel it? I also think we can imitate someone crying, because they are crying and we feel sorry for them, but do we really feel the pain? I enjoyed this blog very much. Thank you

  7. mrgrtmcn

    This is a very interesting topic. I thought this was very intriguing when I read it in the material for last week, though I didn’t entirely understand it. I think I get it much better now, after reading your blog. It seems logical that these neurons would be involved in empathy. It also seems logical to me that it might have something to do with how children learn to do things by watching adults doing it. But that’s just conjecture…

  8. maortiz2293

    What an extremely neat topic you chose for this blog. I really enjoyed the more in depth look at such a recent discovery. Newer discoveries are the reason I love science so much as well as the human body. It’s like we already know so much and yet there is still so much we don’t know and we are constantly discovering new things about how the human body functions. One thing that stuck out to me in this post was the sentence that stated that Dr. Seigel “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.” Specifically the part here that mentions it being unconscious. Do you really think while our brains are “imitating the behavior of another” that we are unconscious of it? I am actually very curious of this and was wandering what others might think. Very interesting to think about.



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