Mirror neurons, first discovered in the early 1990s, have captivated the scientific community and the general public alike. Found in both humans and non-human primates, these unique cells fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when they observe someone else performing the same action. This intriguing function has led researchers to investigate the possible roles mirror neurons may play in our understanding of action, intention, and even empathy.

As research on mirror neurons continues, their potential functions and implications become increasingly complex. Some studies suggest that these cells may be involved in the development of social cognition, while others propose a connection to language acquisition. Additionally, the role of mirror neurons in various neurological disorders, such as autism, is an area of ongoing investigation. Despite some controversies and differing opinions, the study of mirror neurons promises to deepen our understanding of the human brain and may provide valuable insights into disorders affecting social interaction and communication.

Key Takeaways

  • Mirror neurons fire when performing or observing an action, contributing to our understanding of action and intention.
  • The study of mirror neurons explores their potential roles in social cognition, language acquisition, and neurological disorders.
  • Research on mirror neurons may lead to novel insights into disorders affecting social interaction and communication.

Mirror Neurons: Definition and Discovery

Discovery of Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond both when an individual performs a specific action and when they observe someone else performing the same action. They were first discovered in the early 1990s by a team of Italian researchers working with macaque monkeys. The researchers recorded neural activity in the monkey’s premotor cortex, which is involved in planning and executing movements.

During their experiments, they noticed that some neurons in this area would fire not only when the monkey grasped an object, but also when it observed a researcher performing a similar action. This discovery was groundbreaking because it suggested that these mirror neurons play a crucial role in understanding and imitating the actions of others, paving the way for more advanced studies on social cognition in humans.

Mirror Neuron System

The mirror neuron system is a network of brain regions that includes both the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal lobule and is responsible for our ability to understand and replicate the actions of others. The system is not limited to just motor actions; it is also believed to be involved in understanding emotions and intentions of others.

In humans, the mirror neuron system is more complex than in monkeys. It spans across multiple brain regions, such as the motor cortex and the parietal lobule, and is involved in a broader range of actions. For instance, human mirror neurons have been found to be active during the observation of not only grasping movements but also facial expressions and even speech-related movements.

The discovery of mirror neurons and the subsequent research on the mirror neuron system has significantly advanced our understanding of the brain’s role in social cognition and communication. This has opened up new avenues for investigating the neural basis of disorders like autism, where difficulties in social interactions are a prominent feature. Ultimately, the study of mirror neurons continues to shed light on the intricate ways our brains process and relate to the actions of others.

Functions of Mirror Neurons

Action Understanding and Imitation

Mirror neurons play a crucial role in understanding and imitating actions. They were first discovered by neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team in the early 1990s while studying the brain activity of macaque monkeys. These neurons were observed to activate not only when the monkey performed an action but also when they observed another monkey or human performing that action. This association between action recognition and execution allows us to learn new motor acts through imitation and also helps in understanding the actions of others.

Empathy and Emotion

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Mirror neurons contribute significantly to empathy by allowing us to relate to the emotional experiences of others. For example, when we see someone expressing pain or happiness, our mirror neuron system activates, and we can empathize with their emotions. Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni and his colleagues demonstrated that observing facial expressions of emotions activated the same brain regions as actually experiencing those emotions, suggesting a connection between mirror neurons and empathy.

Language and Communication

Mirror neurons are also believed to play a role in language and communication. Researchers Christian Keysers and his team found that the Broca’s area in the brain, known for its involvement in language production, also contain mirror neurons. When we communicate using hand gestures or other nonverbal signs, the mirror neuron system allows us to understand the meaning behind these gestures. Furthermore, auditory stimuli such as speech sounds can activate this system, suggesting a potential role of mirror neurons in language evolution.

Social Cognition

Social cognition is the process by which we understand and interpret the behavior of others in social interactions. Mirror neurons contribute to various aspects of social cognition, such as theory of mind, which is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others. In addition, these neurons are involved in action prediction and understanding intentions of others, which facilitates smooth social interactions.

The inferior frontal cortex, a region associated with social cognition, is also found to have mirror neurons. This suggests a relationship between social behavior and the mirror neuron system, further emphasizing their importance in understanding the social world.

Mirror Neurons in the Brain

Locations and Types of Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are specialized brain cells found in various regions of the brain. They play a critical role in understanding and imitating the actions of others. Key areas containing mirror neurons include the inferior parietal cortex, inferior parietal lobule, and area F5 of the ventral premotor cortex in the macaque brain1. In the human brain, mirror neurons are present in the insula, somatosensory cortex, medial frontal cortex, medial temporal cortex, and posterior parietal cortex2.

These neurons can be classified into two primary types:

  • Strictly congruent mirror neurons: Respond to an observed action that matches the neuron’s motor response.
  • Broadly congruent mirror neurons: Respond to observed actions that are similar, but not identical, to the neuron’s motor response.

Mirror Neuron Network

The various regions containing mirror neurons form a complex network that facilitates action understanding, imitation, and social cognition. This network involves interactions between:

  • Ventral premotor cortex (Area F5): Involved in the planning and execution of actions1.
  • Inferior parietal lobule: Associated with the integration of visual, auditory, and somatosensory information.
  • Insula: Linked to empathy, emotions, and the perception of bodily states.
  • Somatosensory cortex: Processes the sense of touch and proprioception.
  • Posterior parietal cortex: Plays a role in coordinating movements and spatial awareness.
  • Medial frontal cortex: Contributes to decision-making and the anticipation of rewards.
  • Medial temporal cortex: Involved in memory formation and retrieval.

By working together, these interconnected brain regions allow us to understand and interpret the actions of others, ultimately enhancing our social interactions and communication abilities.

Role of Mirror Neurons in Human Development and Disorders

Mirror neurons are a crucial aspect of human development as they play a significant role in various cognitive and social functions. In this section, we will discuss their role in the development of infants and children, their association with autism, and their possible connection with schizophrenia.

Development in Infants and Children

Mirror neurons are believed to play an important role in the development of crucial skills in infants and children, such as emotion, language, and intention understanding. These neurons have been identified in human and monkey motor systems and are believed to be responsible for imitating observed actions, thus helping in learning and social interactions.

In infants, mirror neurons contribute to their capability to mimic facial expressions and understand the emotions of others. This early development of emotional awareness is vital for successful social interactions later in life.

Mirror Neurons and Autism

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors. Research suggests that mirror neuron dysfunction might play a role in the development of autism. Individuals with autism may have difficulties with imitation and understanding the intentions of others, which can be potentially linked to the mirror neuron system’s impairment.

Neuroscientists have observed that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may show reduced activation in brain regions containing mirror neurons. This reduction in activation could be responsible for some of the social and communication challenges experienced by those with ASD.

Mirror Neurons and Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a chronic mental disorder characterized by distorted thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors. While the exact relationship between mirror neurons and schizophrenia is not yet fully understood, some studies suggest that there might be a connection between mirror neuron activity and the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Abnormalities in the mirror neuron system might contribute to the difficulties in social cognition and interaction experienced by patients with schizophrenia. Further research is required to establish a clearer understanding of the role of mirror neurons in the development and manifestation of schizophrenia.

Mirror Neurons in Non-Human Primates

Macaque Monkeys

Macaque monkeys have been the primary subjects of research in the field of mirror neurons. These neurons were first discovered by Vittorio Gallese and his colleagues while studying the brain activity of macaques during action observation and execution. In these studies, it was observed that the same group of neurons fired when the monkey performed an action and when it observed another monkey performing the same action.

Researchers have discovered that mirror neurons play a crucial role in the development of motor skills in macaque monkeys. These neurons enable the monkeys to learn by observing and imitating the actions of others. This process, known as action observation, is essential for acquiring new motor skills and understanding the intentions behind the actions of others.

Other Non-Human Primates

Although much of the research on mirror neurons has been conducted with macaque monkeys, other non-human primates have also been found to possess these neurons. For example, research suggests that some non-human primates may use their mirror neuron system for additional social cognition tasks.

However, the functional role of mirror neurons in non-human primates remains an open question. While it is clear that these neurons play a role in action observation and motor skill learning, their involvement in other cognitive processes, such as language, still needs further investigation.

It is important to note that the discovery of mirror neurons in non-human primates, spearheaded by researchers like Luciano Fadiga, has helped us to understand the neural basis of imitation and social cognition. These findings have paved the way for future studies on the evolution of brain and language in humans as well.

Controversies and Future Directions

Debates and Limitations in Mirror Neuron Research

A major debate in mirror neuron research is the extent to which they contribute to various cognitive functions, such as action understanding and perception. Some researchers argue that mirror neurons play a critical role in these processes, while others believe they may only be one piece of a larger puzzle.

One limitation of mirror neuron research lies in the use of neuroimaging techniques, such as fMRI, to study neural activity. While fMRI has provided valuable insights into mirror neuron function, it may not capture the full complexity of this system. For example, it cannot directly measure the activation of individual neurons or map neural connections at a fine scale.

Another issue concerns the investigation of mirror neurons in the perception of pain. While some studies have found that mirror neurons in the anterior cingulate are involved in empathy for pain, this connection remains contested. Various factors, such as the participant’s emotional state and the specific pain stimuli used in the experiment, can influence the observed neural activity.

In addition, the role of mirror neurons in the evolution of language remains a subject of debate. Some researchers, like V.S. Ramachandran, have proposed that mirror neurons may have played a crucial role in the development of human communication, while others are more skeptical of the connection.

Future Directions in the Field of Mirror Neurons

As the field of mirror neuron research evolves, several future directions could potentially advance our understanding of their functions:

  1. Investigating other sensory modalities: Besides vision, exploring the role of mirror neurons in other sensory systems, such as sound and touch, may provide a more comprehensive understanding of their function.
  2. Studying gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication: Mirror neurons may play an essential role in the transmission and understanding of gestures, which could have broader implications for cognitive function.
  3. Developing new neuroimaging techniques: Advancements in neuroimaging technology could help researchers to better understand the neural activity and connections underlying mirror neuron function, contributing to a more detailed picture of this system.
  4. Examining cross-species similarities and differences: Investigating mirror neurons in other species, such as primates and birds, could provide valuable insights into the evolutionary origins and variability of this system.
  5. Exploring the potential therapeutic applications: Mirror neuron research could lead to the development of novel interventions for disorders related to action understanding, empathy, and social cognition.

By addressing these key areas in future studies, researchers can continue to refine our understanding of mirror neurons and contribute to a more complete picture of their role in human cognition and behavior.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do mirror neurons contribute to empathy?

Mirror neurons are a type of brain cells that respond both when we perform an action and when we see someone else performing the same action. These neurons are thought to play a role in empathy by helping us understand and share the emotions and intentions of others. When we see someone experiencing a particular emotion, our mirror neurons may activate, allowing us to “mirror” that emotion internally and develop a sense of empathy for the other person’s experience1.

What is the role of mirror neurons in observational learning?

Observational learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge, skills, or behaviors by watching others. Mirror neurons are believed to facilitate this type of learning by simulating the observed actions in our own brain, essentially “rehearsing” the same neural activity that occurs when we perform the action ourselves2. This internal rehearsal helps us better understand the observed action and may aid in the learning process by making it easier for us to later perform the action ourselves.

What are some examples of mirror neuron activation?

Mirror neurons can be activated in a variety of everyday situations. For example, when we watch someone eating, drinking, or grasping an object, our mirror neurons might fire as if we were performing the same actions ourselves1. Another example includes observing someone experiencing a strong emotion, such as pain or happiness, which can lead to our mirror neurons activating and allowing us to feel empathy for the person’s emotional experience3.

How can one stimulate their mirror neurons?

Since the primary function of mirror neurons is to respond to observed actions, simply engaging in activities that involve observing others can help stimulate these neurons. Watching dance or sports performances, attending workshops, and observing the actions of skilled individuals in various fields can all help activate mirror neuron systems within the brain4.

Are mirror neurons proven scientifically?

The discovery of mirror neurons in animal studies and the evidence supporting their existence in humans is well-established5. However, there is ongoing debate about the precise roles that mirror neurons play in various cognitive functions, such as empathy, imitation, and language processing. As neuroscience research continues to progress, our understanding of mirror neurons and their functions will likely become more refined and nuanced.

How do mirror neurons affect our everyday lives?

Mirror neurons are thought to play a role in various aspects of our everyday lives, from learning new skills to understanding and empathizing with the emotions and experiences of others3. These neurons may also contribute to the development of social skills and cooperation among individuals, as well as playing a role in the acquisition of language and other forms of non-verbal communication4.


  1. Mirror neurons and the evolution of brain and language 2 3 4
  2. What happened to mirror neurons? 2
  3. Imitation, empathy, and mirror neurons 2
  4. The myth of mirror neurons: The real neuroscience of communication and cognition 2
  5. Making sense of mirror neurons