What are mirror neurons?

Mirror neurons represent a relevant scientific finding, since they refer to the fact that it can be learned through observation. How do they work?

Last update: January 01, 2022

The discovery of mirror neurons and their function was a breakthrough in terms of understanding learning, imitation, and also the role of emotions. Through them we can explain how we learn certain actions simply by seeing someone.

This is how some areas of the brain are activated as if we were the ones who performed this act. In this way, we also understand the importance of being an example when we play an educator role, either as teachers or as parents.

What are mirror neurons?

We owe the discovery of mirror neurons to G. Rizzolatti and his team of researchers from the University of Parma. The experiment was carried out with apes, which were followed through microelectrodes. The goal was to record the activity of neurons when they were taught to pick up an object.

Thus, when the animals took this object, certain areas of the brain linked to movement were activated. But nevertheless, neurons were also activated simply by observing what the other apes were doing. That is, without moving, just observing.

This finding implied understanding the activity of mirror neurons. Its importance is such that its contribution to neurophysiology is equated with what the discovery of DNA represents for biology.

These neurons are found located in the inferior parietal lobe and in the dorsal prime mover and primary motor of the cortex. They receive that name from the fact of speculation, in reference to the reflection in the brain of what we are looking at.

So why are they a revolution? Because its operation not only allows us to understand the what of an action, that is, what is done, but also the why, focusing on understanding motivations and emotions.

Neurons communicate with each other to coordinate homeostasis, but also for us to interact with the world.

What characteristics do mirror neurons have?

The novelty of the discovery of mirror neurons was that simple observation triggers its activation, as if the movement that is seen was being carried out. That is, observation creates conditions for another type of learning.

In this sense, what the researchers highlighted is that there is something beyond seeing movement. It is about mentalizing it, activating neural networks from the perception, interpretation or anticipation of what others will do.

In a more synthetic way, mirror neurons explain the action-execution-intention triad. That is, I see someone perform an action and I can do it and imitate it. But at the same time, I also know what he may be feeling because I have an idea or interpretation about said action.

Mirror neurons, among other factors involved, are responsible for explaining why we get excited when watching a movie, when someone tells us about a certain experience or if we see someone yawn and we do too.

Functions of mirror neurons

Through their functions, let us highlight the importance of mirror neurons:

  • They are key in our connection with others, especially on an emotional level. These types of neurons facilitate empathy, which is the quality that allows you to understand what other people are feeling. In this way, by having the mental model of certain events, I can anticipate what that person feels and thus understand it.
  • In relation to the previous point, this type of neurons is also involved in the possibility of relating better with others, to connect, to establish interactions.
  • At the same time, allow us to repeat and imitate starting to see the action. Hence, they are also essential in learning. Many times we are able to learn something new just by seeing it.

In synthesis, the process of perception and action, as pointed out by Ceberio and Rodriguez (2019), is at the base of human interactions. It is at this point that these neurons and their activity take on fundamental importance.

Within the educational field, mirror neurons play a key role that intervenes in learning.

Learning is more than knowledge

From the discovery of mirror neurons, something has become clear: knowledge is not only rational, as held for a long time. We must stop holding these opposing pairs of mind versus emotion or thought versus feelings.

This type of neurons shows that we can be, and in fact we are, both one thing and the other. Taking advantage of emotional intelligence to enhance knowledge, highlighting how we feel during the teaching and learning processes, should be our north.

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