Mirror Mirror On The Brain

Scientists have pondered over our unique ability to learn for a long time. How does a little child learn so many things so fast just by observing others? Think about the time you first started writing. Most of us do not remember a certain day or time that we first started writing. We saw people around us do it, and then we just did it ourselves. The question is how? How does seeing someone else do it help us learn it? Now take a look at the picture below:

If you are not a gymnast you are probably thinking I cannot do that. How do you know that? You have never tried doing it yet you “feel” you will not be able to do it.  Answers to the above questions all lead to a common thing – the mirror neurons. As its name indicates, these neurons in our brain respond similarly when we are doing a task and when we are observing it. When you saw your mother write, some neurons in your brain started firing as if you were writing. When you saw the gymnast above, your brain quickly tried to mirror how you can do that pose.

I had been planning to write about these neurons for a long time. Initially, I thought I will tell the interesting story of their chance discovery. Then I found this really cool link on youtube that does a great job doing that.

Another interesting find about mirror neurons is their importance in autism. Autism is a mysterious behavioral disease with a variety of manifestation.  They all have the common features of difficulty in social interaction and communication. A large portion of our daily interaction revolves around how we evaluate the other person’s feelings. If your friend seems busy writing an essay for medical school application, you try not to disturb her. But if you didn’t “feel” they were busy you might act inappropriately. The experience of an autistic person can be thought of as something similar. It has been found that when an autistic person watches someone else doing a task their mirror neurons do not respond as if they are doing the task. In short they cannot understand how it “feels” to do a task.

Mirror neurons are not a new discovery. It has been around for 20+ years, yet a review article on mirror neurons cites only 54 papers all of which has been done on humans or monkeys. We haven’t even identified the exact brain area where mirror neurons are located. At a time when people are becoming increasingly interested in understanding human emotions like empathy and its lack thereof, this seems to a be worthy topic to explore.


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