Have you ever cussed at your home team while watching a sporting event? How can you explain the irresistible urge to yawn when you see someone else yawn? New research in the field of neuroscience has identified special circuitry in our brains that explain these phenomena as well as many other circumstances where people’s brains actually become wired to one another.
A set of specific nerve cells found in the brain called ‘mirror neurons’ allows these events to occur. Their discovery has revolutionized the understanding of how humans relate to each other and to the world.
Researchers from the University of Parma (Italy) stumbled upon these amazing neurons. They were studying planning movements in monkeys and were testing a particular neuron that made a specific sound whenever a monkey would grab for a peanut.
One day, while a monkey was sitting idly, one of the researchers came in and picked up a peanut. The monkey’s cell fired even though it had not moved — he was merely watching the human grasp the peanut. The same neuron fired both when the monkey observed something and when it was doing something (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rizzolatti, 1996).
What the study reveals is that this neuron seems to mirror the movement it sees. Although some researches may call them the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ neurons, the Italian scientists labeled them mirror neurons.
Subsequent studies have shown that mirror neurons are also found in the human brain (Rizolatti, 2005). Seeing someone do something is the same as doing it yourself. Therefore, when you watch your yoga instructor perform a new posture, you are sharing that experience with her because your neurons are firing as if you are doing the posture. If you just look at a picture of someone eating a lemon, you naturally scrunch up your face as if you are the one eating the sour fruit. These neurons enable us to relate to the internal state of others as well as to empathize and learn from them.
When people observe someone juggling several packages while walking down the street, those observers react because they can feel the other person’s predicament. They know what it is like to carry heavy packages because their neurons are mirroring the action. This enables them to empathize with the individual and may even inspire them to offer some help. This could also be why it is so easy to be a sports fan. Your neurons are firing just like you are the one playing the sport; that gives a completely new meaning to the saying ‘armchair quarterback.’
These powerful neurons tie us to other people’s actions as well as to their feelings. This system may be the brain’s method of translating and interpreting the way we relate to the world.
Humans are intensely social creatures. The mirror neuron system appears to be the most basic brain system in relating to other people. It is a place in our brains whose specific job is to live in other people’s minds and bodies — a truly amazing concept. Mirror neurons help us to adopt others’ perceptions as well as to connect us emotionally. Think of the last time you laughed hysterically or cried profusely while watching a movie. Those are your mirror neurons in action. Perhaps this suggests that deep in our architecture, down to our very cells, we are built to be together. There is something very reassuring about that.
Gallese, V., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L. & Rizzolatti, G. (1996). Action recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain, 119, 593-609.
Rizzolatti, G. (2005). The mirror neuron system and its function in humans. Anatomy and Embryology, 210, 419-421.