Mirror Neurons: What Are They & How Do They Impact Your Brain

In the last 2-3 decades, researchers have uncovered a fascinating discovery. A set of neurons in the brain exists known as ‘mirror neurons.’ As Ramachandran elucidates below, these neurons are likely to have shaped the foundation of civilization itself and could have a profound impact on the way we interact with one another too.

VS Ramachandran - TEDx - The neurons that shaped civilization

What Are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons are a set of neurons found in multiple areas of the brain that light up both when we feel an emotion or carry out a task, as well as when we see another person doing the same thing[1]The mirror neuron system in post-stroke rehabilitation.

They essentially imitate the activity of mirror neurons in the observed person, putting a whole new twist on the idea that everyone is connected.

These neurons are theorized to be partly responsible for explaining how humans and monkeys can imitate behavior and learn from doing so. They are also intimately involved in our understanding of others and their intentions, as well as how we perceive the world.

The discovery of mirror neurons[2]Mirror Neurons: How We Reflect on Behavior occurred in an Italian lab where the brains of rhesus monkeys were linked up to electrodes, and their brain’s neuronal activity was being monitored. As one of the scientists took a break and had a quick bite to eat, he noticed that some regions of the brain became active in the monkeys who were watching him.

Further investigation showed that these same regions lit up in the monkeys when they were eating or watching somebody else eat and that they correlated both with the motion of holding food as well as the feeling of being hungry.

Thus mirror neurons came into being. These neurons form the physiological bridge between psychology and neurology regarding imitation behavior, understanding others and empathy.

How Mirror Neurons Impact Your Brain
While the research is still limited, mirror neurons appear to affect our brains and how we feel in a couple of ways.
1) Empathy, Social Cognition & Understanding
Without mirror neurons firing off to emulate the actions we see, we would not be able to understand how others think or feel.

This is classic in many social-mental disorders, such as autism.

It also plays a clear role in social dynamics. In order to feel accepted by others, we need for them to understand us and empathize with how we feel.

This is also how we understand the intentions of others, even though science has difficulty explaining how seemingly separate neurons in two different brains can fire off simultaneously in the same way.

The activity of mirror neurons is not limited to real-time social interactions, but also extends to watching behavior in movies or even listening to people on the radio. All the sensory input regions of the brain, as well as the frontal cortex involved with thinking, appear to have mirror neuron activity.

2) Learning & Imitation
Mirror neurons are active when we learn something new by watching how somebody else does it. This ability to learn via imitation is well-documented, and these neurons are part of the underlying mechanism on a physical level for how that occurs.

Infants predominantly learn via imitation, and mirror neuron activity is said to begin at as young as three weeks of age. Mirror neurons are therefore involved with the preliminary connections we make throughout life.

When learning how to do something, further research has shown that mirror neurons do not improve your performance of a task, but instead,task they strengthen your understanding of how to execute task, which results in quicker learning.

This is more accurate for physical activities at the moment and largely applies to helping us select behaviors that will benefit us more than others. It can’t help you to solve a math problem by watching somebody else thinking about the problem; however, it might encourage you to want to think about the problem too!

Using Mirror Neurons To Your Advantage
So how can we use mirror neurons, empathy, and imitation to our advantage? Here are a few interesting ways that this mechanism comes in handy to boost mental health.
1) Learning A New Skill
Mirror neurons can help you to learn a new skill faster by watching somebody else or mentally visualizing somebody else doing the same skill.

In patients recovering from severe strokes who had difficulty doing basic physical tasks, such as gripping an object or raising their arms, it was shown that watching somebody else doing the same actions helped them to relearn how to do so at a quicker rate[3]Modulating the motor system by action observation after stroke..

The data, however, does not show that imitation will improve performance in the sports arena, however watching somebody play sports can help you to understand the physical motions required due to mirror neuron activity[4]Mirror neuron system and observational learning: behavioral and neurophysiological evidence.. A classic example is a person that swipes their fist in the air during a boxing match, imitating the motions of one of the competitors.

Interestingly, mirror neurons are also activated when one listens to a piece of music, and even more so when watching a musician play an instrument[5]Mirror-like mechanisms and music..

Doing so can help you to learn your instrument faster as well as encourage you to want to practice more frequently, particularly if you watch or listen to somebody enjoying themselves while playing an instrument.

Learning any new instrument, even if just learning to Sing will help not only to improve mental cognition, but it will make you better with learning and applying linguistic skills.

Researchers are stipulating that since this also applies to singing, it may be proven at a later stage that mirror neurons will help you to learn a new language.

Given that they aid in understanding and empathy, watching somebody else speak a foreign language and interacting in their environment may help you to get a better understanding of the words they are using and how they use them.

This is consistent with the knowledge that the best way to learn a new language is to be thrown in the deep end and spend lots of time building all the same neural connections with the foreign language as you would in your language with the world around you.

2) Lowering Stress Levels
Since mirror neurons play a role in empathizing, it means that watching somebody else experience either pain or pleasure is likely to trigger the same emotions inside you.

This explains why when we watch something violent taking place, we automatically flinch as if we were the victims in the situation. The same can be said for watching a romance movie, seeing two people falling in love and feeling all warm and gooey on the inside, as though we are the ones in love.

In some cases, we feel more empathy for the perpetrator of an act than the victim, which promotes different behaviors inside of us.

All this being said, you should guard what you watch or listen to as it can alter how you think and feel about anything through your mirror neuron system.

If you only imprint yourself with calming influences, you can help to keep your stress levels down. On the other hand, you can raise them through the roof by watching a horror movie!

Another point to make here is about choosing your friends wisely. We are wired in this way to imitate the feelings and actions of those around us, and so those who you spend the most time with will have the biggest impact on you.

3) Boosting Cognition
Lastly, mirror neurons can boost social cognition if they are firing optimally.

When we have an understanding with somebody in a social context, we get releases of specific neurotransmitters that make us feel happy – namely oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. These feel-good chemicals also help to make us feel more creative, provide us with more energy and help us to solve problems easier.

The inverse can be said about having a social interaction where you do not understand or empathize with another person.

It can cause you or them to become upset, and when either one or the other observes this in the other person, you are more likely to feel the same way yourself. This can also release stress hormones or inflammation in the body, resulting in a decline in cognition, mood and adverse brain health effects in the long run.

To use mirror neurons effectively, keeping positive and exuding a happy exterior can help those around you (and by default yourself) to feel the same way, with additive benefits!

Preserving Your Mirror Neurons
Mirror neurons are exactly like any other neurons in the brain and thus keeping them plastic and protected is the same as doing so for all the other neurons in your brain.

If you practice empathizing or imitation and use your mirror neurons, you will encourage more of them.

Exercise (especially in a group or by watching a DVD) and mindfulness meditation are also great ways to preserve their functioning and quality.

Enhance your focus, reduce stress, and get a grip on how you perceive the world through learning how to meditate!

For more on this, read our articles on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

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