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Mirror Neurons

By Troy Maynes
What are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons are a particular class of sensory-motor
neurons, originally discovered in area F5 of the premotor
cortex in primates.
The main distinctive feature is that these neurons discharge
both when an individual does a particular action and when it
observes another individual doing a similar action (Di
Pellegrino et al. 1992, Gallese et al. 1996, Rizzolatti et al.
1996a)
Many recent discoveries are drastically broadening the scope
and potential functions of Mirror Neurons in humans.
Location within the Brain
This image depicts the location of
the F5 mirror neurons discovered
within Monkeys.
-Originally discovered in Primates
specifically in the F5 region of the
visual-motor cortex.
-More recently there have been
many analogous neuron systems
discovered in many different parts
of the brain.
-Besides visual areas of the brain,
activity has been found in the Superior
temporal Sulcus (STS), parietal lobe,
and premotor cortex.
-They have even been detected in the
Brocas area, which is central to
speech production.
-Does this prove a link between Mirror
Neurons and Language?
Functions in Humans
-Assisting in Observational Learning
-This class of neurons will fire when engaging in a
particular activity, as well as when simply observing
another personal do that activity.
-Play a role in empathy and social interaction
-Many studies suggest that Mirror neurons help
individuals to understand the meanings of gestures and facial
expressions, which could explain our aptitude for social
cognition and empathy.
-Although the role of Mirror neurons seems relatively
specialized in other primates, it seems as if they could have
adapted for a variety of purposes in humans.
-Further studies are going to be needed to verify a lot of
recent hypotheses.

Observational Learning
By far the most well-known effect of Mirror Neurons.
The proposed mechanism is that because mirror neurons are
specialized and only fire off in specific patterns for one
particular behavior, we are able to identify or almost feel
that exact behavior when observing others.
A crucial part of this learning is action understanding, where
these neurons fire off simply if it is understood what the
implied action is.
Monkey Study (Umilta et al. 2001)
Testing F5 mirror neurons
Responded similarly even when the final part of the observed
behavior was hidden behind a screen, demonstrating the concept of
action understanding.
Observational Learning (cont.)
Another interesting aspect of observational learning is how
specialization of skills relates to activation of these brain-
regions.
Capoeira (Brazilian fight-dancers) vs. Ballet
Calvo-Merino et al. (2005)
Capoeira dancers have stronger activation in premotor and parietal
areas when observing capoeira vs. ballet movements. Ballet dancers
showed the opposite effect.
Professional Pianists observing piano playing
Haslinger et al. (2005)
Similarly, there was stronger activation of the motor system when
professional pianists observed piano playing compared to musically
nave controls.


Empathy and Emotional Cognition
Many argue that mirror neurons form a crucial basis for our
understandings of emotions of others.
Similar mechanisms to the observational learning show that
when we observe others expressing certain emotions we
activate the same neural patterns as if we are experiencing it
ourselves.
Its a very intuitive process, lots of anecdotal evidence for it.
when we see somebody experiencing pain it makes us cringe and
often times experience similar pain reactions.
When we see others crying it will often trigger a similar response.
Laughter is contagious
Yawning?
Empathy (Cont.)
fMRI study involving the emotion of Disgust (Wicker et al,
2003)
This emotion typically elicits activation in two structures in the
brain, the Amygdala and the Insula.
The study consisted of olfactory runs where an individual would
inhale disgusting, neutral, and pleasant odors.
Then it compared them to watching video clips of others
smelling and reacting to the same odors.
While the Amygdala wasnt activated at all while observing the
video, the exact same parts of the anterior insula were active.
This study provides evidence for a neural-mapping
mechanism for our understanding of emotions.

Can Mirror Neurons help explain the
development of language?
After discovering the F5 area in monkeys, neuroscientists
quickly concluded that this region is homologous to the
human Brocas area (Petrides and Pandya, 1997)
One crucial differences is how we respond selectively to
speech sounds, a study was done (Fadiga et al, 2002) to
investigate our echo mirror neuron system.
Subjects listened to words and pseudo-words, focusing on words
containing the hard R sound, and words containing the F sound.
When listening to words with the hard R, individuals experienced
much stronger activation of motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) from the
tongue muscles.
Language (cont.)
Another crucial series of studies involved listening to action
words (Hauk et al, 2004, Tettamanti et al, 2005)
Compared the activation of mirror neurons from actually doing a
behavior, to simply reading of listening to words describing these
behaviors. While the activation was less strong, it was very distinctly
present simply from listening/reading the word.
Might prove a link between the mirror neuron system and language
understanding.
While further studies are needed before comprehensive
theories can be developed, it is an exciting field of research
that is just beginning to be understood!
Conclusion
Mirror-neuron research is a very new field of study,
keep an eye out for developments in the future.
Play a key role in Observational learning, puts a new
spin on many Behaviorist theories of learning.
Provides a neurological basis for empathy and
emotional understanding.
While language is very complex and difficult to theorize
on, mirror-neuron research may prove to play a crucial
role in many aspects of language production and
understanding.