Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Mirror Neurons: How we learn by watching

You here it all the time, don't you....

Watch better climbers and you'll learn to climb better

And it seems to work, we see someone shift there body position slightly, maybe twist into the wall a bit more, and can then reach that elusive hold. Then we can recreate it.

But how does it actually work?  

Well, I went to a very interesting lecture last week on mirror neurons, with the thoughts that there are a certain set of neurons within your brain that fire whilst you are doing a task, and whilst watching someone do the task, for instance, you reach for an object, XY and Z neurons fire. You watch someone else reach for the object, XY and Z neurons fire again.

This is a new concept, as previously it was thought that when learning (or relearning) a new task, the brain observes, analyses, breaks down step-by-step, then recreates the new task. 

But it's much more of an instinct as that.

With one provision:

There must be a goal, a purpose to the task

 If there is no goal, say, just a hand making a fist shape, then the mirror neurons get bored, and therefore don't fire. The task has to be purposeful, like reaching for food or an object (or climbing a route!)
The brain sees the initiation of the movement, understands the task in hand, and almost figures out the "filler" bit in the middle of how to achieve it. 

This helps us understand lots about how we learn new tasks, and can be used in a context of a child's learning, or in the re-learning of tasks, for instance, after an acute brain injury.
It also helps explain how we feel empathy, as when we watch someone fall off a problem, miss a hold, miss a penalty, whatever the analogy, then it's like we are the person doing it, the same neurons in the brain are firing.

The lecture I went into went into a lot more detail, however, I'm going to leave you here, further reading is available below, or some TED talks that are always worth a watch! 
Any questions, comment below!


Harriss JP 2014 Mirror Neurons. Presented at Annual Brain Lecture


Rizzolatti G 2008 Mirror neurons and their clinical relevance. Nature Clinical Practice Neurology

Further watching:

Ramachandran 2009 The Neurons that shaped civilization. TED Talks

And a heart warming story to end, to show that it does work:

R D'Angelo, F Fedeli 2013 In Our Baby's Illness: A Life Lesson. TED Talks