When parents conceive a child, their combined genetic information provides the developing embryo with the necessary bodybuilding directions—such as gender identity, nose placement, and skin color. After the child is born, parents and others must provide cultural information about how to live in our complex social environment. They provide this mentoring through language and our brain’s remarkable recently discovered mirror neuron system.
The renowned neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran suggested at the turn of the 21st century that the discovery of mirror neurons might provide the same powerful unifying framework for our understanding of teaching and learning that the 1953 discovery of DNA did for our understanding of genetics. Recent developments suggest that his prediction might be correct.
The initial discovery of mirror neurons 15 years ago was somewhat accidental. Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team of Italian neuroscientists were studying monkey brain systems that regulate intentional hand movements. They discovered that neurons in the premotor areas of the cortex that prime movement sequences (such as to grasp an object or to break open a peanut) activate milliseconds before the movement occurs, but also when the monkey simply observes someone else making that same movement sequence.
The premotor neurons didn’t activate at the mere observation of a hand or mouth—only when it was carrying out a goal directed action. Further, they responded to a hand but not to a tool that was grasping or moving an object (since brain motor areas regulate body parts and not tools).
This discovery was very significant because it located the frontal lobe system that creates a mental model of the intentional movements of others, and then primes the responsive imitative behavior.
The principal reason that animals have a brain is to plan, regulate, and predict movements. Plants are at least as successful as animals, but they don’t have or need a brain. Since they’re not going anywhere of their own volition, they don’t even need to know where they are. What’s the point?
But if legs, fins, or wings make an organism mobile, it needs a sensory system to let it know about here and there, a decision system to determine if here is better than there or if there is better than here, and a motor system to get it to there if that’s the better survival option.
These regulatory systems must begin to develop almost immediately, and most movement skills can’t be learned solely through verbal directions (try to use words alone to teach a child how to ride a bicycle).
A cognitive system that allows a brain to simulate and then to imitate the observed movement sequences of others would thus be an ideal animal learning system—and that’s what mirror neurons do.
Human Mirror Neurons
After the initial monkey research, neuroscientists used neuroimaging technologies to study mirror neurons in humans. These studies have already resulted in fascinating discoveries that are changing how we view many elements of human life. These elements include the development of articulate speech; the underlying mechanisms of empathy; maladies such as autism; the broad appeal of observing others who are engaged in sports, dance, or musical performance; and the effects of electronic media on behavior.
We humans have an incredibly complex mirror neuron system that encompasses our entire sensory system, that allows us to simulate the emotional lives of others, and that thus drives our rich cultural life.
When we observe someone yawn, it activates our brain’s yawning system. Adults typically override the tendency and stifle the yawn—but if we stick out our tongue at an infant who is only a few hours old, it’s probable that she will immediately reciprocate, even though she had never before stuck out her tongue (or even had any conscious awareness of her tongue). Her observation of our behavior will automatically activate the mirror neurons that regulate her tongue movements. Since she has a zillion movements to learn and therefore no reason to stifle the action, her mirror neurons will activate the motor neurons that project her tongue. Similarly, smile and she’ll smile. Clap your hands and she’ll clap her hands. It’s like monkey see, monkey do in childhood.
Speech. Language is a key element of human movement. We can use our legs to approach a friend and extend our hand for a handshake greeting—but we can also stay where we are and project rhythmic air patterns via mouth/tongue movements. These sound patterns activate ear and brain activity that our friend interprets as a verbal greeting. Written language and music are thus also forms of communicative movement.
We can observe arm/leg movements, but not what’s occurring inside the mouth of a speaker. The mirror neuron system helps to explain how a child learns to speak. Our sensory/motor system is highly interconnected, so we can visualize a named but non-visible object, such as a banana. Similarly, hearing articulate speech activates the same speech processes in the child’s brain that the speaker used to sequence sounds and words. Speech is a complex motor activity, so the infant initially babbles incoherently, but over time in a verbal environment, the child begins to correctly utter simple phonemic combinations, and finally smooth articulate speech emerges.
When we observe someone in the initial stages of a movement sequence, such as when a diner picks up a knife and fork, we infer the subsequent actions because our brain is mirroring the sequence and so knows what will occur next. When a speaker stops mid-sentence, we can often complete the sentence. Athletes fake out an opponent’s mirror neuron system by beginning an action, and then quickly and unexpectedly switching to a different action.
Empathy. Since our brain’s hundreds of processing systems are highly interconnected, mirror neurons not only simulate the actions of others but also their related properties, such as the pain or pleasure that results from an action. We use the term empathy to describe this human ability to internalize the emotional state of others by simply observing their facial expressions and body language. Further, empathy can emerge through third party reports, such as news reports of the victims of natural disasters or accidents. We will almost always instantly recall and relive any similar experience we had.
Autism. It now appears that people who suffer from autism have a deficient mirror neuron system, and this would explain their inability to infer the thoughts and behaviors of others, and the difficulty they have in learning to speak. The presumed connection between the malady and mirror neurons opens up promising research possibilities into the diagnosis and treatment of autism.
Virtuoso Performance. Mirror neurons may also help to explain why so many of us enjoy observing and predicting the movements of virtuoso athletes, dancers, and musicians. Virtuoso performances allow our mirror neuron system to mentally model (and thus enjoy) actions that we can’t physically mimic at that level. Note the related active body language of former athletes as they observe a game they once played, and their ability to see individual movements within the complexity of the action that the rest of us don’t see. Further, athletes frequently use mental imagery to enhance their performance of specific practiced movement sequences.
Electronic Media. The mirror neuron system evidently works best when directly observing human behavior, but it apparently will also respond to televised and filmed human movements. This poses intriguing currently unresolved issues about the effect of the electronic depiction of violent and sexual behavior on the subsequent real life behavior of observers.
An old adage suggests that children attend more to what we do than to what we say. If so, the mirror neuron system may well eventually provide us with key elements of the neurobiological base of 21st century theories of parenting and teaching.
About 100 years ago, John Dewey proposed an educational system based on the democratic principles embedded in the US Constitution. We now need a new John or Jane Dewey to propose an educational system based on emerging neurobiological principles, such as those embedded in our magnificent mirror neuron system.