Mirror neurons: this is how they put us in the skin of others


Have you ever wondered why when we see someone yawn, we yawn almost immediately? Or how newborns imitate facial gestures like sticking out their tongues? And what about how we learn to use scissors or color?

It has a lot to do with some peculiar neurons called mirror neurons.

What are mirror neurons?

Mirror neurons are amazing neurons that participate in such important processes as learning, empathy, and imitation.

They were discovered by chance by the Italian neurobiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti in 1996 . Examining the brain of a macaque, this researcher and his team recorded neurons that were activated not only when the animal executed the action, but also when they observed another one doing the same activity. Moreover, in both cases the premotor cortex was activated in the same way.

It was soon found that exactly the same thing happens in humans. For example, when we watch someone climb stairs, the motor neurons that correspond to those movements are activated without us taking a single step. And, in general, when we watch another individual perform an action, without the need to speak, our mirror neurons can put us in the same situation , mentally simulate it as if it were happening to us.

Not only that: this type of nerve cell allows us to understand the intention with which the action is performed.

Another of their properties is that they are activated by the sound associated with an action. For example, when listening to how a paper is torn, they already mentally emulate that action, although we do not get to see it.

Where are they?

Mirror neurons are located in four regions of the brain that communicate with each other : the premotor area, the frontal gyrus, the parietal lobe, and the temporal sulcus.

Different functions reside in these zones:

  • The premotor area manages movements and controls muscles.
  • The inferior frontal gyrus is involved in executive control, management of social and affective behaviors, and decision making.
  • The parietal lobe analyzes visual sensory information.
  • The superior temporal sulcus is involved in auditory processing and language.

Learning and empathy

The existence of mirror neurons is essential for our species . To begin with, because of the role they play in learning by imitation and observation. Second, because they participate in the acquisition of language.

And third, they are essential in the development of empathy and social behavior. Not in vain do they allow us to understand the actions of other people and also their emotions.

Mirror neurons have great clinical implications. They are affected in autism, schizophrenia, apraxia (inability to perform motor tasks) and neurodegenerative diseases, among others .

For example, motor, language, and social failures coexist in autism. It is not by chance that all these functions are related to brain areas where mirror neurons are located.

Harnessing mirror neurons in class

We can consider observational learning as any moment in which an action is observed and something new is learned or previous knowledge is modified. We do not have to confuse imitation – for example, copying an individual’s gestures – with observational learning . The latter is a change that lasts in the individual and produces a response.

By observing a process, mirror neurons prepare us to imitate the action. If during teaching we unite observational learning with the creativity of the student, we will obtain a more efficient learning. This will be internalized and will last over time.

All of this leads us to highlight the important role that educators play in the classroom. The students observe all the actions carried out by the teacher . For this reason, we should put aside traditional teaching, merely expository and static, and carry out more activities that allow us to develop the capacity for observation.

Another aspect to highlight is the attitude that teachers present in the classroom. Mirror neurons allow us to understand the intentions and emotions transmitted . Those passionate teachers who teach their subjects with enthusiasm and joy, achieve greater concentration and observation of the student, capturing her attention for longer and spreading her emotion.

For all these reasons, there are different educational methodologies that allow us to unite this knowledge about mirror neurons with useful tools depending on the context of the classroom. In any case, it is key to incorporate new strategies to encourage motivation and use manipulative tasks (laboratory sessions, practical cases, etc.) that allow the use and internalization of the learned content.

All the events that take place in the classroom, the dynamics of the classes and the emotional aspects that the teacher transmits to the students will condition the learning and the experience that the students live in the classroom.

Author Bios: Laura Trujillo Estrada is Assistant Professor Doctor. Department of Cellular Biology, Genetics and Physiology, University of Malaga. Center for Network Biomedical Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases (CIBERNED). Malaga Biomedical Research Institute (IBIMA) and Agustina Maria Torres Prioris who is Interim Substitute Professor in the Department of Didactics of Mathematics, Social Sciences and Experimental Sciences, University of Malaga. Member of the Research Group on the Teaching of Sciences and Competences (ENCIC) both at the University of Malaga