You’ve likely experienced the scenario at some point in your life where someone in your line of vision yawns and the next thing you know you are stretching out, mouth opened wide, sucking a load of air into your lungs for a gigantic yawn. You aren’t tired. You didn’t need to yawn before. Why are you yawning? The answer is mirror neurons.
The same mechanism that causes us to “catch a yawn” also allows babies to reproduce facial expressions and humans to sob while watching sad movies. While there is still much to be discovered about these “mirror neurons” the available research paints a pretty unique picture of how they help us learn and how they shape our perception of the world.
What are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons were discovered in the mid 1990s by a group of Italian scientists . While monitoring neurons in monkey brains, they noticed that the exact same neurons that were activated in a monkey while eating a peanut were also activated when the monkey watched a researcher eat a peanut. In essence, the motor neuron in the monkey’s brain was mirroring what the monkey saw. Monkey see monkey do!
The finding was fascinating because it implied that watching someone else perform an action caused a pattern of firing in the brain as if you were doing it yourself. Further research found that the mirror neurons were highly specific in their response to visual perception. For instance, when testing mirror neurons using bananas, they were only activated if the researcher picked up the banana with their right hand and peeled it with the thumb and forefinger . The implication from these findings is that mirror neurons were firing in response to motor action only if it was accompanied by intention. In this case, the mirror neurons only fired if there was a clear intention to eat the banana and not if the researcher merely picked it up to move it or waved it around.
Since the discovery of the existence of mirror neurons, there has been a great deal of research devoted to understanding their role in the human experience. In particular, how these neurons act in anticipating our perception of other people’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Other than leading to behaviors such as imitation (i.e. yawning) they appear to play an important role in our learning and understanding of the world around us. Research  investigating mirror neurons in humans has found that they exist in areas of the brain associated with forming an image in your mind of the mental state of others, otherwise known as empathy. This ability to experience empathy is essential for human attachment and survival.
Mirror Neurons and Catching Feelings
You’ve caught yawns but did you know that you’ve also likely caught some feelings? Emotional contagion  is when a person or group influences the emotions of another person or group. Not only can mirror neurons fire in a way that allows you to anticipate the emotional state of others, they actually allow you to experience those emotions. If you’ve ever been in a room with a group of extremely happy people versus a group of extremely sad people, you can relate to this concept.
Interestingly, research  done in people with psychopathy found that mirror neurons associated with feeling other people’s emotions are deactivated in these people by default. The same neurons only become activated when participants were told to “feel what the people in the video are feeling” in response to emotional stimuli. This has led many researchers to explore mirror neurons as a key component of human connection.
Mirror Neurons and Learning
Mirror neurons play an important part in our development. Human beings learn from imitation and learn much more quickly after being shown how to do something. Not only do mirror neurons play an important role in learning physical behaviors, but they also guide our emotional understanding of the world. Perhaps, one of the most powerful implications of mirror neurons is that our brains encode “the ways of the world” through imitation. Our previous experiences shape our perceptions and interpretations of events that happen in our lives. Dr. Daniel Siegel, professor of psychiatry at UCLA medical school offers his insights:
“If you are from New York City and I raise my hand in front of you, you may imagine that I am hailing a cab. If you are currently a student, you may imagine that I am intending to ask a question. If you have been abused, you may feel that I am going to hit you. Prior learning shapes the empathic interpretation and the internal simulation.”
Why does this matter for learning?
Well, you can’t exactly hop in a time machine and unlearn your expectations of the world, but you can change the architecture of your brain moving forward. There are countless ways to improve your quality of life through good habits, but how do you fast track your learning? It’s all about the company you keep.
Use Mirror Neurons to Boost Your Own Productivity
The coolest thing about mirror neurons is that they continue to offer us a fast track means of learning behaviors and skills throughout our lives. This means that by spending time around people who display the behaviors you’d like to emulate, you are expediting your ability to learn those behaviors. Whether it’s learning to sharpen an ax or developing a meditation practice, human beings learn best through example.
Mirror neurons suggest that the company we keep can have important implications for how we interpret and experience the world around us. For instance, spending time with a person who handles difficult situations with patience and mindfulness can help rewire how you respond to similar situations. Similarly, if you are trying to learn a new skill like skateboarding, spending time observing other people doing it can help you learn more quickly. Similarly, surrounding yourself by happy and positive people can have a profoundly positive impact on your own emotions.
While much work remains to be done on mirror neurons, available research suggests that we can capitalize on the brain’s ability to automatically learn and practice skills through imitation. For those of us who are always trying to grow and improve, this means that in addition to adopting and tracking good habits, one of the best ways to reach your goals is by spending time with others who share common goals.
- Action recognition in the premotor cortex. https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/119/2/593/382476
- Language within our grasp. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9610880/
- Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas. https://www.pnas.org/content/100/9/5497
- The complexity of understanding others as the evolutionary origin of empathy and emotional contagion. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-41835-5
- Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23884812/
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