Humans are social animals. Our success as a species is a byproduct from our ability to speak, to understand, and to work with each other. These behaviors, though familiar to us, are amazingly complex and miraculous. The capacity to comprehend intentions and empathize with internal worlds of other organisms implies a set of profound social skills; which implies a network of well-wired neurobiological processes. The mirror neuron is the best explanation we have thus far to explain our unique capacities.
- What are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons are motor neurons found predominately in the premotor cortex. These neurons could potentially explain phenomena, from a collective consciousness to the reason individuals are capable of self-awareness. The main idea is that mirror neurons create representations of the mental states of others. Being around a depressed or overly excited individual activates the same centers in your brain. This happens through observation. Keep in mind that because we are limited in our ability to sense and perceive, we are prone to forming misguided representations of others.
2. The Discovery
Individual mirror neurons were discovered in the premotor cortex of Macaque monkeys in 1996. The researchers were originally studying brain activity and types of complex grasping (Graziano, 2013). They discovered that areas in the macaque brain would activate upon watching the researcher execute the grasping motion. So, this suggests that we understand the behaviors of others in a way similar to how we understand ourselves.
3. Evolutionary Perspective
The mirror neuron makes logical sense from an evolutionary perspective. Simplicity is a guiding principle in evolution of different species because unnecessary or unwarranted complexity is wasteful in time and energy. Without mirror neurons, inferences about the behavior and intentions of others would need to go through a series of cognitive processes to conjure up those sort of representations. This would be wasteful of both cognitive energy and time. With mirror neurons, we are able to simply mimic the behaviors or mental states of other individuals by observation.
4. Individual Development
There is evidence to suggest both an innate presence of mirror neurons and growth of mirror neurons via experience. Young infants have been known to mimic the facial expressions of adults, so this suggests that this is evidence of both a rudimentary sense of self awareness and awareness of others (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2009). However, our ability to understand ourselves and others grows with time. So it is not a stagnate system without plasticity.
5. Imitation Learning
Mirror neurons are motor neurons. If the mirror neuron hypothesis is correct, we learn about others by means of observation (linguistic as well as bodily movements)(Oberman & Ramachandran, 2009). This means we can incorporate our understanding of experiences of others into our own conceptual understanding of life and the universe. This could be through watching somebody cut down a tree, having late night conversations with a friend, or following a story in a movie. We can gather a more rich and complex world view by paying attention to the behaviors and words of other human beings.
6. Empathy via Mirror Neurons
Mirror neurons mimic the mental state of others via observational queues, but this immense concept is difficult to prove in an empirical setting. One study suggests that emotional recognition may be mediated by the mirror neuron network because participants were able to recognize emotions just as easily by facial expression as with hand movements( Oberman & Ramachandran, 2009). Both facial expressions and hands are mediated by the premotor cortex where mirror neurons predominately reside.
Mirror neurons are also thought to help aid in the process of being able to look at ourselves from the perspective of others. The same process we use to observe and pay attention to the behaviors of other individuals would be inverted to observe the behaviors of the self. Although, it is not clear whether awareness of the self or awareness of others came first. Some believe that because social needs are more essential to survival, our ability to read and understand the intentions of others came first and self-awareness followed (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2009) .
Mirror neurons are thought to be relevant in both our speech producing and speech perception behaviors. The premotor mirror neuron network is in close proximity to areas in the brain involved in both hand movements and mouth action (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2009). So speech production, and the gesture aspect of human communication are closely related to motor complexes.
Mirror neurons could unfortunately be utilized for predicting consumer behavior. Because people learn passively and live vicariously through representations of people on screens, it makes sense that an algorithm could be implemented to change people’s behavior in a way that is profitable. Though research of mirror neurons in the context of advertising is presently uncommon, the minimal literature shows that advertisements that have actors actually handle and use a product are easily learnt and remembered (Lacoste-Badie & Droulers, 20140). This ingrained familiarity would make us more likely to purchase products when primed with advertisements where the actors are consuming or using the product being advertised.
Graziano, Michael. (2013). Consciousness and the Social Brain. Oxford University Press. Pp 186.
Lacoste-Badie, S., Droulers, O. (2014). Advertising: The Power of Mirror Neurons. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics. &:195-202
Oberman, L.M., Ramachandran. (2009). Reflections on the Mirror Neuron System: Their Evolutionairy Function Beyond Motor Representation. Humana Press.
Edited By: Lizzie Watson