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What Are Mirror Neurons?

Mirror neurons are a relevant scientific finding, since they refer to the fact that we can learn through observation. How do they work?
What Are Mirror Neurons?

Last update: 02 January, 2022

The discovery of mirror neurons and their function was a breakthrough in terms of understanding learning, imitation, and also the role of emotions. Through them, we can explain how we learn certain actions by the simple fact of seeing someone do something.

This is how some areas of the brain are activated as if it were we ourselves who performed the act. In this way, we also understand the importance of being an example when we play a role as educators, either as teachers or as parents.

What are mirror neurons?

We owe the discovery of mirror neurons to G. Rizzolatti and his team of researchers at the University of Parma. The experiment was carried out on apes, which were monitored by means of microelectrodes. The aim was to record the activity of neurons when they were taught to pick up an object.

Thus, when the animals picked up the object, certain brain areas linked to movement were activated. However, neurons were also activated simply by observing what the other apes were doing. That is, without making any movement, just observing.

This finding led to an understanding of the activity of mirror neurons. Its importance is such that its contribution to neurophysiology can be compared to the discovery of DNA in biology.

These neurons are located in the inferior parietal lobe and in the primary motor and dorsal premotor of the cortex. They get their name from the fact that they’re specular, in reference to how the brain reflects what we’re looking at.

So why are they a revolution? Because their functioning doesn’t only allow us to understand the actual action, but also why it was carried out. In this way, we put the focus on understanding motivations and emotions.

Mirror neurons.
Neurons communicate with each other to coordinate homeostasis, but also so that we interact with the world.

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What are the characteristics of mirror neurons?

The significant part of the discovery of mirror neurons was that simple observation triggers their activation. This means that observation creates conditions for another type of learning.

In this sense, what the researchers emphasized is that there’s something beyond actually seeing the movement. It’s all about its mentalization, the activation of neural networks due to the perception, interpretation, or anticipation of what others will do.

In a more synthetic way, mirror neurons can explain the action, execution, and intention. That is, we can see someone perform an action and we can carry out the same action and imitate it. But, at the same time, I also know what they might be feeling because I have an idea of why they carried out the action i.e. I interpret what they did.

Mirror neurons, among other factors involved, are responsible for explaining why we get excited when watching a movie, when someone tells us about a certain experience, or when we see someone yawning and we do it too.

You may be interested in: 6 Ways to Regenerate Your Neurons

Functions of mirror neurons

By looking at their functions, we can highlight the importance of mirror neurons:

  • They’re key in our connection with others, especially on an emotional level. This type of neuron facilitates empathy, which is the quality that allows us to understand what other people are feeling. In this way, having a mental model of certain events, I can anticipate what that person feels and thus understand it.
  • In relation to the previous point, this type of neuron is also involved in how we can relate better to others, as well as connecting and establishing interactions.
  • In turn, they allow us to repeat and imitate from the moment we see the action. That’s why they’re also fundamental in learning. Very often, we’re able to learn something new just by seeing it.

In summary, this process of perception and action, as Ceberio and Rodriguez (2019) point out, is at the basis of human interactions. It’s at this point that these neurons and their activity become fundamentally important.

Children playing.
Within the educational field, mirror neurons play a key role involved in learning.

Learning is more than knowledge

From the discovery of mirror neurons, something has become clear: knowledge isn’t only rational, as people have believed for a long time. As well as our mind, it also involves our emotions.

This type of neuron shows that we can be, and in fact are, both one thing and the other. It should be our focus to harness emotional intelligence to enhance knowledge by highlighting how we feel during the teaching and learning processes.

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  • García García, Emilio y González Marqués, Javier y Maestú Unturbe, Fernando (2011) Neuronas Espejo y Teoría de la Mente en la explicación de la empatía. Ansiedad y Estrés, 17 (2-3). pp. 265-279. ISSN 1134-7937
  • Naranjo, M. G. M. (2018). Escucha activa y empática. Editorial Elearning, SL.
  • La Touche, Roy. “Biografía del Prof. Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti.” NeuroRehabNews Octubre (2016).
  • Ceberio Y Rodriguez (2019). Las Neuronas Espejo: Una Génesis Biológica De La Complementariedad Relacional. Papeles del Psicólogo / Psychologist Papers, 2019 Vol. 40(3), pp. 226-232 https://doi.org/10.23923/pap.psicol2019.2900