Mirror Neurons and Imitation in the Brain

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to explain what mirror neurons are and how they help humans learn and develop empathy. A short quiz will follow.

How Do Humans Learn?

Have you ever wondered how babies learn so much, so fast? If you've sat in a math class, staring at the textbook, wondering how on Earth you'll ever understand it all, you know that learning can be hard. But for babies, it seems so easy. Babies are like sponges, absorbing huge amounts of information in the first few years of their lives. So how do they do it? How is it possible?

The answer is that babies' brains are set up for the task. Babies' brains are not only relatively empty and ready to receive information, but the connections in their brains haven't yet been fully formed. Their brains are making huge numbers of connections in their first years of life.

But there is one thing babies know how to do right from the start: they know how to imitate. And that's all because of mirror neurons.

What Are Mirror Neurons?

A neuron is a special cell in the body that transmits nerve impulses. When you hurt yourself, a signal is sent through neurons (otherwise known as nerves) to your brain to tell you it happened. When people talk about neurons, they're usually referring to those in the brain. The brain is full of neurons, and they're a fundamental part of how it works.

Illustration of a Neuron (or Nerve)
Illustration of a Neuron (or Nerve)

A mirror neuron is a type of neuron that fires both when an action is performed and when you see someone do the same action. When you pick up a ball, certain neurons fire in your brain. When you see someone else pick up a ball, some of the same neurons fire in your brain. These are called mirror neurons.

Why is this important? Well, it's precisely why babies imitate actions they see. When they see an action, the same neurons fire that will be needed for the baby to perform that action themselves. This makes it easier for them to do it. In other words, the actions they see help them form connections in their brain allowing them to then perform that action. Imitation is the way that babies learn, and is vital to their development.

A Macaque Monkey Imitating a Human
A Macaque Monkey Imitating a Human

Development of Empathy

Mirror neurons are vital for human development, both in biological ways and in ways you might not expect. Many scientists argue that mirror neurons are responsible for the existence of empathy.

Have you ever watched a TV program where someone was crying, and found yourself brought to tears as well? Why did that happen? The bad thing didn't happen to you, after all. You have no logical reason to cry. So why do we feel other people's motions?

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