What are mirror neurons?
The Origin of Mirror Neurons: The human brain contains mirror neurons (MPC), which, like so many things that exist in nature, came about gradually through natural selection. Mirror neurons are cells that respond to the body of another individual and, like so many biological examples, have evolved in order to enhance the formation of social bonds among individuals who wouldn’t otherwise naturally feel close to one another.
“You’re thinking ‘Huh! How weird! Of course! ‘when you first hear this about your brain cells: the biological mechanisms of what’s called mirror neurons, “said Mark Meyer of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the clip. “These are neurons, for instance, that allow us to imitate the actions of another person. And that was kind of unknown a few years ago.
Moreover, mirror neurons are a natural, biological control mechanism, an intimate link between the nervous system and the mind. When our brains respond to the behavior of someone else, that behavior may be consciously understood. When our brains react to what others say, we may listen in. And when we observe a healthy adult taking actions that we would like to take ourselves, we may feel a glimmer of connection. If you put your hand on a hot stove, it is often difficult to resist the urge to do it yourself. We see ourselves as indignant for not having noticed that we were hot, even though we had not actually noticed that we were hot. And similar effects may be at work when mirror neurons give rise to an implicit understanding of behavior in the other person.
Furthermore, the first function of mirror neurons is to guide performance and communication. Just as a child quickly learns the rhythm of a mother’s movement, in a mirror, an actor reproduces his/her partner’s gaze. Because the act of sharing is what distinguishes humans from other animals, a mirror enables the ability to work together, cooperatively.
The importance of mirror neurons
One hypothesis suggested that mirror neurons evolved because they enabled simple movements to be performed more effectively. Researchers have found that mirror neurons in one particular part of the human brain become active when the subject performs a simple movement with his or her hands. This is called the parietal mirror neuron system. Other studies of mirror neurons have found that they actually originate from the premotor cortex. This area is responsible for controlling the movements of the body and the legs. Eduardo Alonso and his colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital recently found that all monkeys are capable of mirror neurons, no matter how large their brains.
Moreover, the early hypothesis that mirror neurons were a basic feature of the neocortex arose from a series of well-controlled anatomical studies. The method used was electrophysiology. A sensitive electrode placed over a particular brain region was used to record the behavior of particular neurons in that region when a subject performed an action with that part of the body. The responses indicated that these brain cells responded only when the action was performed with the corresponding part of the body, but not when the action was not performed with that part. These results have subsequently been replicated using many different forms of stimulation.
What do we know about them so far?
It is well-known that mirror neurons fire both when an individual performs a behavior and when that individual observes another individual performing the same behavior. In fact, mirror neurons appear to be activated by the same behavioral stimulus no matter when or where it occurs. In addition, mirror neurons do not activate if another individual performs a behavior while watching them. However, when the individual watching them performs a different behavior while watching themselves, mirror neurons fire. These findings suggest that the mirror neuron system may play an important role in the processing of social behavior. Microstructures that are specialized for each of the cells that make up a mirror neuron have been identified, and they differ from each other.
How did they come to be?
Psychologists tend to agree that mirror neurons are associated with imitation, though there is no evidence that a mirror neuron produces imitation per se. But no matter how they develop, the first neuroscientists were still surprised to find that mirror neuron are not the brain’s famous visual processing cell. Instead, they are specialized cell types with a common purpose: monitoring the brain’s own activity and replicating it. By the early 1990s, many neuroscientists had realized that cells in the visual and motor areas of the cerebral cortex were special. Each of these “mirror” cell types in these areas was involved in monitoring the activity of a neighboring cell and then copying it with the help of electrical pulses.
Mirror neurons and empathy
Empathy is a complex phenomenon consisting of an individual’s emotional response to another individual’s distress and the interpersonal cognitive state that guides this behavior. This type of interaction has been observed in humans, in which empathy is often linked to altruism and prosociality. The most widely accepted theory of empathy claims that humans are naturally inclined to help others in distress because the suffering of another human often motivates us to alleviate their pain. This theory, however, has a number of shortcomings. For example, while there is strong evidence that empathy is involved in helping another person in distress, the rationale for these feelings is elusive.
The Origin of Mirror Neurons: To see the possible limitations in how our mirror neurons work, imagine you have a map in front of you. Every place you click and drag represents a neuron firing in your brain. Now, imagine you want to figure out where the place you’re touching is in relation to the rest of the map, but you don’t know how your brain works. The map is in your memory, but the area in your brain where the place is should be in front of your face. However, it might actually be behind your back. You might just have to retrace your steps until you find the place. Now imagine having that map again.
How are Mirror Neurons Different from Empathy?
“We have to view mirror neuron cells as empathetic,” Mr. Putnam said. “We ask how much mirror neuron activity corresponds to what you’d see in response to somebody else experiencing pain or experiencing joy or experiencing an emotional state, and the answer is a lot. The mirror neuron system is very good at coding sensory feedback.” Mirror neurons could be said to create an enhanced form of empathy, the theory goes. A person experiencing an emotion may find herself feeling an emotion she cannot directly experience. When she sees someone else experiencing the same emotion, she may experience empathy for her friend.
The Origin of Mirror Neurons: How are Mirror Neurons Similar to Empathy?
Emotional experiences can prompt mirror neurons in the same way that they may trigger a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) to associate emotions with behaviors. Interestingly, mirror neurons, by monitoring another individual’s body movements, might be able to “read” emotions, causing them to be more naturally integrated into the brain. Mirror neurons fire both when the observer performs an action, such as tying his shoe or grasping a bottle, and when the observed individual performs the same action. Such neurons can also amplify social behaviors such as facial expression, pitch and tone of voice, postural habits, and vocal expressions.
What are the drawbacks of mirror neuron activity?
The Origin of Mirror Neurons: Whether mirror neurons truly have an important role in brain function is uncertain. They can support simulation of the intentions of others, but it seems that this may be of little value for purposes of imitation in general. People performing simple routines that mirror those of others are more often in error than correct. In addition, mirror neuron activity, if it exists, does not appear to relate to the exploration of novel situations, with the exception of the use of symbolic and unconventional communication.
Conclusion: The Origin of Mirror Neurons
Although for all practical purposes, the term mirror neuron can only describe one of the many types of brain cells that process information about the world around us, it represents an amazing find, due to the immense implications it has on our understanding of nature of human consciousness. The discovery of mirror neurons is thus so significant that this has long been considered the final frontier of neuroscience and psychology and it has fascinated scientists for decades. Mirror neurons not only account for our sense of empathy but also the nature of visual perspective, motion perception, and the like.