Mirror Neurons and How to Harness Them

mirror neurons

In 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 implications

The 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 help 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.

mirror neurons

For 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 which means they will be more influenced by the way we’re thinking.  The opposite is if I’m really trying to persuade someone to my point of view, they’re more likely to put up a wall and defend their stand.  Or they might say it’s pointless arguing with this person I’m just going to give in.

I have personally witnessed this while serving on jury duty.  A juror didn’t agree with the argument of the juror in charge, but he was tired of being beaten down.  So, although he didn’t agree with the perspective, he still gave in to stop arguing and end the trial. His decision had nothing to do with evidence or the trial itself and thus it was 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 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.

mirror neurons and how to harness them

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.

Also, when we have a strong interpretation of something in our brain, we are more able to make sense of other people’s actions.  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 need to watch the entire movement 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 dancers do in their mind while watching the other dancer. 

Now, let’s go a step further and ask 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 and how to harness them

The mirror neuron system is involved in anticipating other people’s actions.  Like the dancer but another good example are 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. 

In short, even with infants, mirror neurons are being triggered even though we can’t see any movement, through performing, witnessing, or hearing.

So, the question is now how can we tap into mirror neurons and harness them, to benefit our overall health?  One way is through positive thinking.  You 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 be excited.  Mirroring your thought into 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.

Speaking something out loud or internally should not be underestimated.  “You are what you say.”  That’s a fact not a theory.  If you tell yourself over and over something is going to happen, it eventually will.  Because, you are tricking your brain into believing something whether positive or negative, by repeating it and 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 the power of our words and taught us to think and say only what we want to come true.

Certain coaches have their athletes do this.  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 to do these sessions are performing at a much higher level than the ones who didn’t participate, although their training outside of the sessions is the same.

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

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 your kids to go trigger some neurons.  It kind of sounds funny when put like that, but it’s the truth.

None of this is new as most of us already realize that babies learn from watching and kids learn by doing and seeing.  However, it’s always exciting to know why something is the way it is.  And, now that you know, you can use mirror neurons for your benefit and in understanding someone else’s reaction. 

Our minds are the most powerful tools we have when we choose to tap into them. Remember that as you go out today and make an impact on the world.

Heather Earles
Heather Earles

Is the owner of H&E Literary Works LLC, writes for a local newspaper, has written several books to include  A Busy Morning On The Farm and an upcoming thriller/drama series called “Prisoner Within.” She is a Print Specialist for Pufferprint, writes a blog on healthy living to aid and inspire. She has a podcast called Herb ‘N Wisdom™, enjoys country living, God, and her family. “I love helping people feel better about life.”

Replacing Bad behavior with Good

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