The discovery of mirror neurons began with monkeys being studied in Italy. Neuroscientists, among them Daniel Glaser of University College London, noticed that the same neurons (the motor neurons) that fired in the monkey’s brain when the monkey reached for a peanut, also fired when the monkey saw someone else reach for that peanut. Among the conclusions was that “watching somebody do something is just like doing it yourself”. These neurons, which are on both sides of the brain, came to be called mirror neurons due to the brain mirroring what it was seeing.
Now, if you think about one way that people learn, especially babies and children, they do it by mimicking what they see and hear. That is how humans transfer language, kids pick up the motions of sports, dance steps are learned, and we wince or cry or laugh or smile upon watching the ouches, hurts, humor and joy experienced by others.
Wait a minute, how did an emotional component creep into the idea of mirror neurons!
UCLA researcher Marco Iacobini thinks that these mirror neurons impact our empathetic system; they are what lets us feel what others feel, and allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. “Mirror neurons can send messages to the limbic or emotional system in our brains.”
Think about how you react to movies you see or books you read or sports teams you follow, or news your friends share with you. Something in most of our brains allows us to feel emotion without actually experiencing the event that leads to the emotion. Whoa.
Check out the Jaunary, 2005 NOVA Science NOW episode about Mirror Neurons for more information. I guarantee it will entertain and illuminate.
Also check out Your Amazing Brain, a site where you can “Explore your brain, take part in real-life experiments and test yourself with our games, illusions and brain-benders.” This site hosts the page referenced above in the link for Daniel Glaser.