Mirror neurons and complex learning

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

When I was young, I used to go to the occasional baseball game with my dad. As we watched the game I would notice him and others in the crowd get so into it they would slightly mimic players movements squirming in their seat while intensely watching the players movements. I would get so into it that I would do the same, when I watched a player I would lean forward slightly in my seat and feel concentrated for them. These days I do the same thing when I watch others get coached on horse back and notice my peers do the same. I was curious why we all seem to do this and why. That’s when I first discovered mirror neurons. If you aren’t familiar mirror neurons are neurons that respond when we watch somebody do an action. When we watch someone do an action our neurons fire off in the same way as if we were doing it ourselves. This explains why when we get so into something someone else is doing, we feel almost as if we’re right there with them. It also explains quite a bit about how we learn and why visuals are so crucial to our learning process.

Mirror neurons are a relatively new discovery, in the 1990s there was a study done on monkeys to better understand neurons responsible for hand and mouth actions. Electrical signals were recorded in the monkey’s brain as they ate food. Researchers were puzzled when they started noticing that there were neurons that would fire when the monkey’s saw humans pick up food. Their brain would light up as if they were doing the actions themselves. Others studying neuroscience were noticing similar patterns in their study with humans leading to the discovery of mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are responsible for Intention Understanding, which is the information we can get by observing another’s action. What action is being done and why. This is very complex thinking and animals are capable of it too. This is why animals can learn from each other so easily. These neurons play a large role in empathy, when we witness or even think of something unfortunate happening to someone else we feel for them. If we see something painful happen to them like a paper cut on their hand we may even grab our hand in the same area they got sliced without even thinking of it, our mirror neurons are responsible for this. People who are autistic don’t have standard functioning mirror neurons which is why it’s particularly difficult for autistic children to relate to others life situations.

The thing I find the most fascinating about mirror neurons is the important role they played in the evolution of language. An action done by another becomes something we can immediately grasp without ever having seen or done it before because the action causes our motor representation in the same way. So the use of verbal and body langue apply and have played a crucial role in humans developing advanced verbal and body languages. We wouldn't be an advanced civilization today without this ability.

Many athletes have discovered the powerful tool of studying the way pro's move. Recently I visited The World Equestrian Center and watched a $75,000 jump off with my friend Ellen May and boyfriend Miles. All of us including others in the crowd had their adrenaline pumping as riders flew over massive jumps. Looking around it reminded me of being at baseball games when I was younger when everyone would squirm in their seats. As each rider went over a fence everyone would lean forward a little bit, some where doing hand movements as if they were riding and the crowd would collectively "hold their breath". It reinforced that we have a ability to be deeply immersed simply by watching. Combining this natural learning process with an intellectual knowledge of what's going on and the biomechanics of the sport can be a massive advantage to learning effectively. I believe anyone who has the good fortune to watch pros in the flesh should take advantage of it and pay attention.

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