Groundbreaking research in the 1990s discovered that “mirror neurons” fire whether monkeys perform an activity themselves or observe others engaging in it (Rizzolatti & Fabbri-Destro, 2010).
In the decades since, studies suggest that humans also have mirror neurons, and they are fundamental to what it means to be human (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).
Neuroscience shows that mirror neurons impact our ability to grasp new skills, acquire knowledge, and form deep emotional connections with those around us, even helping us understand why people do what they do (Cook et al., 2014).
This article explores the nature of mirror neurons and how they affect our learning and cognition and boost our empathy.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
Mirror neurons facilitate our learning by enabling us to imitate and understand the actions and behavior of those we observe. When we watch others engaged in a task, areas of our brain are stimulated as though the task is being performed by us.
For example, neuroimaging studies show that the same brain areas are activated in motion perception and motion production, whether we are watching someone run down the street or doing so ourselves (Woolfolk, 2021).
While these neurons fire at the same time as the behavior we observe, they also activate later when we recall what happened (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).
Sadly, watching a concert violinist play doesn’t mean we can pick up a Stradivarius and start playing Bach, particularly when we have never had lessons. Mirror neurons do not provide us with an “exact motoric coding of observed actions” (Eysenck & Keane, 2015, p. 141), yet they do support observation, visualization, and representation and are, therefore, a vital aspect of our learning (Woolfolk, 2021).
Imitating and comprehending others’ activities is particularly helpful for young children’s learning skills (the how), such as speech, movement, and play. Mirror neurons also appear to provide sufficient information to predict why someone is performing the behavior they are engaged in, and this is a powerful mechanism for emotional understanding (Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014).
Why are mirror neurons important?
Mirror neurons are a vital aspect of our evolutionary inheritance, as they are associated with “one of the most intriguing aspects of our complex thought process, that is ‘intentional understanding’” (Acharya & Shukla, 2012, p. 119).
When we observe an action performed by another, we typically receive two vital pieces of information (Acharya & Shukla, 2012):
What action is being taken?
Why is the action being done?
The second piece is more complex, identifying intention. Our mirror neurons engage to predict what is yet to occur, boosting our opportunity to learn and empathize (Acharya & Shukla, 2012; Wilson, 2014).
The neurons that shaped civilization
To find out more, check out neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran’s enlightening TED talk.
How Does the Mirror Neuron System Work?
“Mirror neurons represent a distinctive class of neurons that discharge both when an individual executes a motor act and when he observes another individual performing the same or a similar motor act” (Acharya & Shukla, 2012, p. 118).
They have been found in multiple brain areas, including the premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, primary somatosensory cortex, amygdala, thalamus, and inferior parietal cortex. As such, they are potentially engaged in the following (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022; Eysenck & Keane, 2015):
Initiating, planning, and coordinating movements and storing motor programs for learned actions
Processing sensory information related to touch, pressure, and proprioception (awareness of body position) from different parts of the body
Sensorimotor integration, spatial awareness, and perception of objects in relation to oneself
Processing emotions and regulating emotional responses
Context is essential. Mirror neurons are more likely to fire when the observer can connect with and understand the person’s goals or intentions (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).
Neuroscientists believe that the areas of the brain typically activated by our own emotions are also active when we observe another individual experiencing feelings or sensations.
Evidence suggests that mirror neurons are strongly associated with human empathy. And that’s important. After all, empathy enables us to put ourselves in another’s place (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).
“Recent research suggests that we may understand the thoughts, emotions, and sensations of others by simulating them in ourselves as if we were experiencing similar mental states, emotions, or sensations” (Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014, p. 337).
When we are experiencing pain, the anterior cingulate cortex is active. We also see activation in the same region when we observe someone else receiving a painful experience (Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014).
Such mirror mechanisms seem equally active when we judge others’ actions and when we process their experiences, sensations, and emotions.
While observing such emotional information, the mirror neuron system makes it possible to generate a brain state that matches that of the person being observed, providing an automatic share of their experience (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).
6+ Fascinating Research Findings and Examples
Some early claims for the mirror neuron system may be exaggerated, as it is unlikely that a single brain mechanism accounts for all aspects of action understanding (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).
However, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and psychologists recognize that mirror neurons play an essential part in the process and, therefore, remain keen to better understand their impact and influence on human learning and empathy (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).
Mirror neurons and autism
Research has investigated whether “dysfunctional simulation mechanisms may underlie the social and communicative deficits seen in individuals with autism spectrum disorders” (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2007, p. 310).
Analysis of preliminary findings left it unclear whether mirror neurons were a significant factor in the behavioral and neurological differences seen in those with autism (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2007).
An analysis of more recent research findings offers two suggestions (Khalil et al., 2018).
There is an interaction between the mirror neuron system, action perception, empathy, and imitative behavior that can impact social decision-making.
Mirror neurons may serve as a first layer in understanding and imitating behavior and may be impaired in those with an autism spectrum disorder.
While some researchers propose that future research into mirror neurons will clarify how “pharmacological, neurostimulation, or psychotherapeutic treatment approaches” can “support tailored psychiatric interventions” (Khalil et al., 2018, p. 675) in clients with autism spectrum disorders, others remain doubtful whether any clear connection will be forthcoming (Heyes & Catmur, 2021).
Trauma and mirror neurons
Mirror neurons appear to be a vital element of our cognition and social interaction, but how they are involved in processing and reliving traumatic experiences remains unclear (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022; Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014).
Gaensbauer (2011) investigated whether mirror neurons could be involved in young children’s post-traumatic reenactment behaviors.
While little data was available at the time, the study concluded that mirror neurons might mediate deeply embedded patterns of reenactment behavior that follow trauma (Gaensbauer, 2011).
Since then, researchers have suggested that mirror neurons play a part in how and why therapists develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder similar to those of their clients.
It appears that mental health professionals are, very literally, experiencing some of the same emotions as their clients (Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014).
The exact function of mirror neurons in trauma remains unclear and offers new avenues for research into the brain’s mechanisms engaged in the adverse effects of traumatic events (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).
The role of mirror neurons in learning
“Observing and visualizing support learning because the brain automatically responds to these types of stimulation” (Woolfolk, 2021, p. 328).
While the exact influence of mirror neurons on learning remains unclear, many researchers suggest they play an essential role in associative learning, making connections between stimuli and responses, and forming associations that influence behavior (Cook et al., 2014; Heyes & Catmur, 2021).
Cook et al. (2014) suggest mirror neurons serve as generalized processes in associative learning rather than having a specific evolutionary purpose or adaptive function.
Heyes and Catmur (2021) agree that mirror neurons are domain-general but also highlight the importance of the nature (or subject) of learning.
For example, dancers observing other dancers experience more activity in associated mirror neurons than non-dancers.
Having previously experienced the same or similar dance moves as the individual observed strengthens the learning effect in the observer (Heyes & Catmur, 2021).
Neuroscience studies suggest that mirror neurons likely contribute to complex control systems involved in learning rather than acting alone (Heyes & Catmur, 2021).
Emotion Theories and Mirror Neurons
To thrive as humans in a social world, we must be capable of the following (Ferrari & Coudé, 2018):
Understanding what others are doing within our group
Empathizing with how they feel
Grasping their intentions
Such emotional and cognitive awareness is based on complex, multidimensional action–perception mechanisms that appear widespread among primates.
As such, many neuroscience researchers believe that a psychobiological theoretical comprehension of mirror neurons can account for affective empathy, involving emotional understanding and resonance (Ferrari & Coudé, 2018).
According to neurobiological research into emotional theory, mirror neurons allow us to process facial expressions and interactions between people. Their function is to enable us to “perceive and understand others’ feelings without words” (Trieu et al., 2019, p. 25).
Such theory, backed up by research, suggests this is particularly apparent in the development of empathy in children.
It means that because we share the same underlying neural structures and activations, we can be emotionally involved in the experiences of others. Then hormones such as oxytocin kick in to regulate (or even enhance) these empathic processes (Trieu et al., 2019).
3 Books on Mirror Neurons and the Brain
With new techniques and technology, our understanding of the human brain continues to evolve. Identifying the vital elements involved in learning and connecting with others offers deep insights into how we function as social beings.
1. New Frontiers in Mirror Neuron Research – Pier Francesco Ferrari and Giacomo Rizzolatti
The discovery of mirror neurons has undoubtedly increased and challenged our understanding of the human brain and our capacity to learn and empathize.
This exciting book highlights the importance of the plasticity and development of the mirror neuron system and its potential to improve the therapeutic process and promote neurorehabilitation.
2. Mirroring Brains: How We Understand Others From the Inside – Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia
In this intriguing book, three of the foremost researchers into mirror neurons, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia, and Frances Andersen, offer new insights into their properties and functions.
An essential read for neuroscientists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and sociologists, the text provides a deeper appreciation for how we relate to one another, along with digging into the concept of “understanding from the inside.”
3. Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience – Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia
Written by the same authors, this earlier book is equally vital. Learn how Rizzolatti and colleagues at the University of Parma discovered the unexpected properties of a previously unknown set of brain cells: mirror neurons.
Join the authors to share in the excitement of one of the most groundbreaking advances in neuroscience of the past 50 years.
We have many resources available for therapists, coaches, and educators to help their clients and students with their learning and empathy, engaging their mirror neuron systems.
Our free resources include:
What Is Empathy?
Designed for children, this valuable worksheet helps children practice and develop their empathy skills by considering their own and others’ emotions.
Emotional intelligence and empathy require excellent listening skills. This practical worksheet encourages clients to “walk in the other person’s shoes,” fact-check interpretations, give full attention, and validate feelings.
Fostering Empathy Reflectively
Use this worksheet with clients to improve their understanding of their own and others’ emotions, boosting their empathy.
The discovery of mirror neurons significantly impacted our understanding of how we learn and develop empathy for those around us.
While there is still much to uncover regarding their function and properties, neurological studies suggest that these particular neurons activate whether we observe behavior in others or engage in the activity ourselves (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).
However, there are limits. While we cannot learn everything from watching alone, our capacity to imitate and comprehend others’ activities is vital to learning new skills, acquiring knowledge, and building empathy, particularly for young children (Trieu et al., 2019).
Neuroscience research suggests that our mirror neurons support us in learning the “how” of performing a skill (or set of skills) and the “why” regarding others’ intentions.
As educators, we can help learners by providing opportunities to see others practicing the skills they wish to acquire and then giving them a chance to try them out. In doing so, we can support them in forming deeper, broader, and richer understandings of their subject matter (Woolfolk, 2021).
Research continues across multiple life domains and groups, including those with autism, those who have experienced trauma, and those engaged in learning and education.
Mental health practitioners should recognize that if clients witness positive and constructive behavior, communication, and coping mechanisms, they can emulate that behavior, potentially leading to long-standing change that helps them build flourishing and fulfilling lives.
Knowing more about how our brain helps us connect with new skills, knowledge, and fellow humans can have far-reaching effects, potentially leading to improved communication and learning inside and outside counseling.
Mirror neurons help us emotionally share the experiences of others by enabling us to perceive and understand their feelings without words (Trieu et al., 2019).
How do mirror neurons work?
Mirror neurons function by allowing us to simulate and understand others’ actions, emotions, and intentions through shared neural structures and activations (Ferrari & Coudé, 2018).
Do mirror neurons explain empathy?
Mirror neurons contribute to empathy by helping us resonate with others’ emotions and experiences. They combine with other biological systems, such as the hormone oxytocin, which can regulate or even enhance empathic processes (Trieu et al., 2019; Ferrari & Coudé, 2018).
Can mirror neurons respond to music?
Some researchers believe that mirror neurons contribute to our enjoyment and participation in music, “hijacking the simulation mechanism of the brain” (Matyja, 2015, p. 1). In doing so, we experience a more physical (or embodied experience) of the musical piece.
What makes yawning contagious?
Yawning is an example of what psychologists call “emotional contagion.” It reflects our brain’s inclination to synchronize with others through our mirror neurons, potentially boosting group cohesion and social bonding (Ferrari & Coudé, 2018).
Acharya, S., & Shukla, S. (2012). Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain. Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine, 3(2), 118–118.
Cook, R., Bird, G., Catmur, C., Press, C., & Heyes, C. (2014). Mirror neurons: From origin to function. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(2), 177–192.
Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook. Psychology Press.
Ferrari, P. F., & Coudé, G. (2018). Mirror neurons, embodied emotions, and empathy. In K. Z. Meyza & E. Knapska (Eds.), Neuronal correlates of empathy: From rodent to human (pp. 67–77). Elsevier Academic Press.
Gaensbauer, J. T. (2011). Embodied simulation, mirror neurons, and the reenactment of trauma in early childhood. Neuro-Psychoanalysis, 13(1), 91–107.
Heyes, C., & Catmur, C. (2021). What happened to mirror neurons? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(1), 153–168.
Khalil, R., Tindle, R., Boraud, T., Moustafa, A. A., & Karim, A. A. (2018). Social decision making in autism: On the impact of mirror neurons, motor control, and imitative behaviors. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 24(8), 669–676.
Matyja, J. R. (2015). The next step: Mirror neurons, music, and mechanistic explanation. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
Oberman, L. M., & Ramachandran, V. S. (2007). The simulating social mind: The role of the mirror neuron system and simulation in the social and communicative deficits of autism spectrum disorders. Psychological Bulletin, 133(2), 310–327.
Penagos-Corzo, J. C., Cosio van-Hasselt, M., Escobar, D., Vázquez-Roque, R. A., & Flores, G. (2022). Mirror neurons and empathy-related regions in psychopathy: Systematic review, meta-analysis, and a working model. Social Neuroscience, 17(5), 462–479.
Rasmussen, B., & Bliss, S. (2014). Beneath the surface: An exploration of neurobiological alterations in therapists working with trauma. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 84(2º3), 332–349.
Rizzolatti, G., & Fabbri-Destro, M. (2010). Mirror neurons: From discovery to autism. Experimental Brain Research, 200(3–4), 223–237.
Trieu, M., Foster, A. E., Yaseen, Z. S., Beaubian, C., & Calati, R. (2019). Neurobiology of empathy. In A. E. Foster & Z. S. Yaseen (Eds.), Teaching empathy in healthcare (pp. 17–39). Springer.
Wilson, C. (2014, February 4). Brain zapping makes role of mirror neurons clearer. New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25002-brain-zapping-makes-role-of-mirror-neurons-clearer/.
Woolfolk, A. (2021). Educational psychology. Pearson.
About the author
Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.