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What Are Mirror Neurons?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

When I first heard about mirror neurons, I couldn’t believe that they actually existed. And yet they make sense on a somewhat loose basis. Simply put, these neurons in your brain are responsible for you imitating the behavior of someone and are crucial in our ability to learn. But how did we learn of their existence, and where are we going with our research into them?

“When Monkey See, and When Monkey Do”

In 1992, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team of researchers were looking into the mechanics of brain-to-muscle processes. They wanted to gain insight into how our brain coordinates our muscles to grab something, so they placed electrodes into the brain of macaque monkeys and took note of which neurons fired for a given task. In this case, it was a grabbing motion. But when one of the researchers actually did a grabbing motion themselves, those same neurons fired in the monkey even though the monkey wasn’t doing anything but watching (Taylor, Thomas).

A Revolution?

In 2000, V.S. Ramachandran postulated that these mirror neurons could be a golden key in psychological research, finally tying down some of its ideas to a physical science. After all, it’s likely the mechanism for people picking up skills via observational skills. So perhaps we can extend this to witnessing people’s actions and picking up on the person’s intent behind it. This lead to the “action understanding” hypothesis, where mirror neurons are not tuned to movements but to goals, which is how we build our understanding of others’ actions and therefore create a sense of empathy (Taylor).

The big problem? Mirror neurons have never been definitely spotted in humans. Reports of neurons with properties like those seen in the monkeys have been made, but the findings are not conclusive for all. Instead, neuroscientists advocate for mirror systems, or groupings of the brain, which act like the supposed mirror neurons. Some also feel that even if human brains do have mirror neurons, their potential use is limited and they are not as special as they've been spun to be (Taylor, Thomas).

Follow-ups to the initial monkey study revealed another flaw in the mirror neurons: Visually seeing a task does not guarantee a successful replication. You watching an athlete for as long as you want to will not give you the ability to do what they do with any degree of accuracy. More is going on in the brain besides these mirror neurons. Another flaw is the intentionality of an action being correlated to the activity itself doesn’t preclude someone from understanding without replicating. You don’t have to be able to do something to get a general vibe for what the person is intending to do (Taylor).

What this all points to is that mirror neurons require a more finessed approach to fully uncovering what they are doing. They are not the end goal but a part of a complex chain of thought and reasoning that goes on in the brain. Further research into mirror neurons has done this, and there are still a few surprises here.

Take a study done by Peter Their (Tubingen University), Antonio Casile, and Vittorio Cassiano again using monkeys grabbing for things. They found that of the mirror neurons they identified as firing when the monkey was witnessing a grabbing action, only half would fire again if the action was done outside the monkey’s reach. So a proximity feature seems to be at play for some of the neurons, perhaps indicating a preferential system of what tasks the neurons latch onto (Science).

In another study, people with damage to their motor cortices were asked to put pictures of people doing things in chronological order, and then to do the same for a non-living thing. In general they had a hard time with the people-orientated task but the other one went just fine. It was as if the intentional ability of these people was compromised, something that would fall under a mirror neuron’s ability, though some contend you can still lose an ability to do something but understand its process (Thomas).

What is going on with these neurons?

What is going on with these neurons?

Broken Mirror Hypothesis

Autistic people may have trouble understanding people’s intentions because their mirror neurons are impaired. But research has shown this lack of understanding of people isn’t correlated at all with the supposed area of our brain with mirror neurons in it. Instead, it seems wholesale differences in the brains of autistic people are more likely. But mirror neurons could simply be one of these many differences, and research is showing that mirror neurons may impact autistic people but under certain circumstances (Taylor, Thomas).

One study points to this possibility. In it, brain wave patterns known as mu rhythms (or waves with a frequency of 8-13 hertz) were examined in autistic people and in normal people. The premotor areas of the brain, the location of supposed human mirror neurons, also suppresses mu rhythms which thus prevent the sensorimotor cortex from “relaying signals for movement and sensing stimuli.” Autistic people, however, do not have this suppression feature and so indicates their ability to determine other’s behaviors is compromised. The firing of the rhythms that would help someone engage in the activity mentally isn’t working with autistic people, so it requires different strategies for finding out other’s intents. If those mirror neurons are really there and are responsible for mu rhythm suppression, they may be partially responsible (Science).

Works Cited

Society For Neuroscience. "Mirror, Mirror In The Brain: Mirror Neurons, Self-understanding And Autism Research." ScienceDaily, 7 November 2007. Web. 04 Feb. 2021.

Taylor, John Mark. “Mirror Neurons After a Quarter Century: New light, new cracks.” Sitn/ Harvard University, 25 Jul. 2016. Web. 04 Feb. 2021.

Thomas, Ben. “What’s So Special about Mirror Neurons?” Nature America Inc., 06 Nov. 2012. Web. 04 Feb. 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Leonard Kelley