Mirror Neurons: New Insights Into How We Understand Others

by Joshua Metz, MSW

Your child watches you get up from the couch and go the kitchen toward the refrigerator. As you raise your hand to open the refrigerator door, your child says, “I want some juice”. You didn’t say where you were going or what you were doing. You didn’t offer to get some juice for your child or inquire if s/he was thirsty. So how did your child know what you were doing? What prompted the request for juice? What was it about your actions and your child’s interpretation that made such a connection possible? For decades, research in child development has looked for answers to these questions and others about how we understand what others do. Some say it is learned behavior — the child has seen this action many times before and has learned what it means. Others may say it is trial and error. Or maybe it was a lucky guess.

In recent years, scientists and researchers working in the field of neuroscience (understanding how the brain works) have uncovered important findings about what our brain does when we observe the actions of others. We know that brain cells, or neurons, control everything we do, from talking to moving to laughing to thinking. When a person lifts a cup, specific neurons activate in a specific pattern to move the person’s arm, hand and fingers to reach for, grasp and lift the cup. Researchers have now identified a second set of neurons, called mirror neurons, which activate when person just observes another person reaching for, grasping, and lifting a cup. What’s the catch? These mirror neurons actually activate in the same pattern as if the observer was lifting the cup himself, even though he is just watching another do it and not moving at all. It’s as if the brain copies, or mirrors, the movement and actions without having to go through the actual movements. Such brain activity can be seen as an important component of imitation, a foundation for how children (and adults) learn. It’s as if the brain takes a practice run when observing before it tells the body to do what was just observed. And we all know that practice makes perfect.

We now know the origin of the phrase “Monkey see, monkey do” (actually, much of the research in mirror neurons has been conducted on monkeys and other primates). But there’s more to mirror neurons than just imitating. Under further examination, these mirror neurons appear to be involved in how we understand the motivations behind the actions of others. Mirror neurons actually help us discriminate and understand the intentions of others just by observing their actions. In the example provided at the beginning of this article, we saw the child “figured out” that the mother’s simple action of going toward and reaching for the refrigerator door “meant” that she was going to get a drink or food. The ability to extract meaning from action, like imitation, is an important component of development that builds the foundation for higher levels of thinking about, relating to, and communicating with others. With the help of mirror neurons, it is possible to look at another person frowning and quickly make the connection that a furrowed brow and down turned mouth is connected to a specific emotion (sadness). Mirror neurons make it easier for children to learn cooperation and shared problem solving, leveraging this built in translator that sees action and interprets the underlying intent.

So what happens when mirror neurons aren’t working? What happens when you can’t interpret the actions of others, or the ability to learn by imitation is inefficient or compromised? You watch a person make a surprised face or reach for a book, but you have a hard time figuring out what it means to that person, and to you. Research being conducted on mirror neurons and children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders is providing some answers. It has been found that some of the core deficits of autism, including difficulties with social relationships and taking the perspective of others, may result from problems with the functioning of mirror neurons. This may be why children with autism have such a hard time understanding the actions and intentions of others, and as a result find it difficult to successfully engage in social relationships. Without the brain’s translator, these children have to find other ways to cope with environments that are dynamic and in constant need of interpretation. In the face of actions that seem so puzzling or in the midst of so many signals that can be interpreted quickly enough or not at all, many children find it too difficult to interact with others. They just turn away or spend time by themselves in an environment where they have more control over what they pay attention to and do. If this is indeed the case for some children with autism or difficulties with relating, engaging and communicating, it is an important piece of the puzzle for parents, educators and professions. It means not taking for granted what we find so natural in our interactions with others when helping children with autism. It means that we can and should look for other ways to support a child’s desire and ability to form relationships. Perhaps we can slow down, look closer for cues of understanding, and take extra time in teaching skills and forming meaningful connections. If at first you don’t succeed, try again, and again. Even with mirror neurons that are compromised, it is still possible to learn from, engage with, and enjoy relationships with others. It just may take a little more patience, and practice.

Even with a better understanding of mirror neurons and their role, the challenge remains to identify the intervention that works to strengthen mirror neurons. Research is ongoing, and we in the Interdisciplinary Child Development Team at Family Compass continue to follow its progress as we actively look for ways to strengthen mirror neurons in the children with whom we work.

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