One question in our reading really caught my attention, “How aware could you be of things that are happening right now, …if you had lost all of your senses and, therefore, your ability to perceive?” (Goldstein, 2011, p. 49). I thought of this question again when reading about top-down processing, processing that draws on prior experiences and knowledge. What if you were inexperienced with your senses and had no knowledge base to draw from? That’s where mirror neurons come into play. Mirror neurons fire when we perform an action, but also when we see someone perform an action, we experience the action like we performed it ourselves. Maybe it’s because I’ve been invited to a first birthday party next week, but I thought about the impact of mirror neurons and child development.
Have you ever made faces with a baby? An infant will stick out their tongue (within days of birth) or make a face copying the action made by a caregiver. Mirror neurons make it possible to experience the action by watching others. This creates the opportunity for the baby to imitate and learn the action, gaining experience in how to move their mouth and tongue and connect with the caregiver. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2YdkQ1G5QI
As with the motor skills of facial expression, mirror neurons are thought to influence language. Babies mimic many sounds around them, laughing and talking, in an effort to communicate. It seems that mirror neurons provide an opportunity for the baby to learn by copying and interacting with others. With practice, babies will have babble conversations with you; they will even talk and then wait for you to respond. As the child develops they will add inflection and tone to communicate even before knowing what words to use. They have heard these traits and are mirroring them back with the expectation that you will understand and respond.
Mirror neurons can also influence emotional and social bonding. It’s been said that humans are social creatures and tend to identify with and favor people that are similar to them. Mirror neurons set us up to connect with others because we have the ability to process their actions as our own, we can feel what they are feeling. I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where one baby begins to cry because another baby in the room is crying. Or have seen a baby giggle because the people around them are laughing. The baby doesn’t understand the joke, but at the neuron level they connecting with the action of others and experiencing the same emotion.
Experience-dependent plasticity indicates that the brain can be trained with each additional interaction. So the more we interact with the environment the more we can learn or hone what we practice. While additional research is needed on mirror neurons it is easy to picture the impact on child and lifelong development both cognitively and socially. It’s a big world out there so it’s nice to think my brain is setup to assist in understanding and identifying with others. One last thought… if I yawned now would your mirror neurons fire and nudge you to also?
Goldstein, E. Bruce, (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Winerman, L. (2005). The mind’s mirror. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct05/mirror.aspx
Lacoboni, M. (n.d.). Mental Mirrors. Natural History. Retrieved from http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/28883/mental-mirrors
Matousek, M. (2011, March 28). I Feel Your Pain, But Why?. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ethical-wisdom/201103/i-feel-your-pain-why
Cort, J. (Writer and Producer). (2005, January 25). PBS. Mirror Neurons. Video retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/mirror-neurons.html
Prenoetic. (2008, November 2). Neonate imitation [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2YdkQ1G5QI
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2011, June 17). Infant Development: Milestones from 4 to 6 Months. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/infant-development/art-20048178