Mirror Neurons

mirror neuronsIn this article we are going to talk about Mirror Neurons, what they are and how they work.

Wikipedia describes Mirror Neurons as this:

mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.  Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species.  Birds have been shown to have imitative resonance behaviors and neurological evidence suggests the presence of some form of mirroring system.  In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.

mirror neurons implicationsThe function of the mirror system in humans is a subject of much speculation. Some researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology consider that this system provides the physiological mechanism for the perception/action coupling (see the common coding theory). They argue that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. Some researchers speculate that mirror systems may simulate observed actions, and thus contribute to theory of mind skills, while others relate mirror neurons to language abilities. Neuroscientists such as Marco Iacoboni (UCLA) have argued that mirror neuron systems in the human brain helps us understand the actions and intentions of other people. In a study published in March 2005 Iacoboni and his colleagues reported that mirror neurons could discern whether another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table. In addition, Iacoboni has argued that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy.

So, that was the basis for what mirror neurons are, what they are capable of and what scientist think about them.  I know there are different opinions regarding mirror neurons, but that’s a good thing.  It’s good to ask question, discuss different ideas until we find out what is factual and what is merely a theory.

I find the whole thing fascinating and have used different ways and forms of tapping into this amazing tool we all have inside of us.

empathyFor instance if you can think of being empathetic while communicating with another person or group of people.  That is, if we are truly trying to understand their thoughts and feelings and allow ourselves to be influenced by their point of view we are much more likely to trigger mirror neurons and get the same kind of response in return from them.  Why?  Because they’re going to be more empathetic to our response of them and will be more influenced by the way we’re thinking.  The opposite is, if I’m really trying to persuade them to my point of view they’re more likely to put up a wall and defend they’re point of view.  Or they might say it’s pointless arguing with this person I’m just going to give in.

I have personally seen this while serving on jury duty.  A juror didn’t agree with the argument of the juror who was in charge, but he was tired of being beat down.  The end result was although the one didn’t actually support or buy into the perspective of the other juror, he still gave in so as to stop arguing and end the trial.  I want to add although he gave in there were those of us that weren’t bullied.  Thus the trial ended up being a hung jury.

It’s much more powerful when we can mutually arrive at a destination.  And that happens as a result of empathetic thinking.  Understand I don’t mean we should use this to influence people’s core beliefs just so they agree with us.  In the case of the juror however, if the one in charge would have been more empathetic to the one who eventually gave up, one or the other might have seen a different side or point of view.  That would have been beneficial not only to them but to the rest of us serving as jurors and the trial overall.  You see, because of shoving a point down someone’s throat, one became tired of arguing and the other missed crucial evidence.

Researchers say that 10% to 20% of the same neurons that trigger when a person does an action also fire when they see someone else do the same kind of action.  So action execution and observation.

dancer posing Also when we have a strong interpretation of something in our brain, we are more able to make sense of other people’s actions.  Example: A dancer who is watching another will know what turn or jump the performer is about to make without actually seeing the entire move first.  However if a non dancer is watching, they will have to watch the entire move before knowing what turn or jump the dancer will make.  In short, there is a stronger understanding of other people’s actions when you know how to do the action yourself.

Mimicking an action is something the dancer above was doing in their mind while watching the other dancer perform.  Now what happens when someone wants to physically mirror an action when they don’t have arms?  How do you trigger the neurons that normally perform these actions?  Studies have shown that humans, when seeing someone reach will still use the neurons mimicking the person they are watching.  Instead of using arms however, these individuals will cause movement in their legs and feet.  Making the point that you take the function of the action in the brain and represent it with your own motor system.

mirror neurons, infant mirroring an adultThe mirror neuron system is involved in anticipating other people’s actions.  Like the dancer another good example of how we know this to be true is through babies.   Although we can’t run test on infants the same way we would on animals or adults.  Scientists have made a net of electrodes called EG, measuring the electric activity in the brain of infants.  The results of the EG have shown that babies have the same mirror neurons as adults.  Parents observe them all of the time when they see their child mimicking them from a very early age.  Even as infants, mirror neurons are being triggered even though we can’t see any movement, through performing, witnessing and hearing.

So, now that we know what mirror neurons are.  How can we tap into them, to benefit our overall health?  One way is through positive thinking.  You actually trigger neurons when you tell yourself to do something.  Example: By saying to myself every night, “I’m excited to get up in the morning,”  you will actually be excited.  Mirroring your thought into an action.  The same as if you say, “I hate waking up early,” well guess what?  You’re not going to be excited the next morning, you are going to hate waking up.

This is the argument of why speech and what you tell yourself without speaking is so important.  “You are what you say.”  That’s a fact not a theory.  If you tell yourself over and over something is going to happen, then I believe it eventually will.  You are tricking your brain into believing something whether positive or negative, by repeating it.  Mirroring a response that was given by yourself.  Also by doing this repeatedly, you will believe it more and more making it a reality, first in your mind and then in a physical action.

I understand now, why my parents made me and my siblings say “I can,” three times whenever we said we can’t.  They knew how powerful our words were and taught us to think and say only that which we wished to come true.

Certain coaches have their athletes do this also.  They go through a class or a session just thinking and telling themselves what they want to achieve, over and over.  These sessions have had profound effects.  The athletes that chose do these sessions are performing at a much higher level than the ones who didn’t participate, although their training outside of the sessions are the same.

Goal orientated people use this method of sitting quietly and imagine what it will take to reach their goals.  They also repeat them out loud every day.  Not only do these people reach their goals but they are some of the most successful and influential people on our planet today.

boy practicing on an instrument What do we tell our kids when they want to be good at something?

  1. Practice
  2. Listen to a teacher or observe someone who’s really skilled at it in order to learn.

Without even realizing it you have just told them to go trigger some neurons.  Kind of sounds funny when put like that, but it’s the truth.

Although most of us already knew that babies learn from watching and kids learn by doing and seeing.  It’s always exciting to know why something works or is the way it is.  Now that you know, you can use them for your benefit and perhaps understanding someone else’s reaction.  Our minds are powerful tools if we choose to tap into them.

-Heather Earles

Replacing Bad behavior with Good


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