How Mirror Neurons Help You Relate To Others
Mirror neurons are generally nerve cells located in the brain that light up both when you see someone performing an action and when you perform that action yourself. They may be related to empathy and other social skills. It may be possible that there could be a link between mirror neurons and autism spectrum disorder, as those with autism frequently experience difficulty interpreting others’ intentions and emotions. However, even if you experience challenges in social situations, it may not mean that there is something wrong with your mirror neurons. It may be possible to develop improved social skills through therapy with a licensed mental health professional.
What are mirror neurons?
Mirror neurons can be defined as nerve cells in the brain that typically activate when you perform an action and when you witness someone else performing the same action.
This can be different from other neurons that only fire when you, yourself, act. That is thought to be where the name comes from: the idea that these neurons mirror behavior outside yourself as though you were the one acting out that behavior.
Mirror neuron research
The first research on mirror neurons is believed to have begun in the 1990s, which can be considered relatively new by scientific research standards. Early research on mirror neurons began primarily by studying non-human primates. Electrode signals indicated that the same part of the brain fired both when the subjects grabbed an object and when they saw another primate grab the same object.
This was not simply activity in a similar region of the brain but in specific nerve cells. The same neurons in primate subjects were typically firing off both when performing the action and watching that action. However, human brains can be more complicated, and it can be challenging to determine which neurons are activating.
Research may be able to locate the firing neurons down to a tiny region using imaging technology, but even a tiny region of the human brain can contain millions of neurons.
Mirror neurons in humans vs. other animals
Mirror neurons seem to be even more developed in humans than in other animals. That may be part of what has led some people to claim these neurons are what make us human or lead to our unique abilities in language and building civilizations. Current research is studying how these neurons may have contributed to empathy and language development, as well as the neurons’ possible connections to autism spectrum disorder.
Where are mirror neurons located?
Mirror neurons are generally located within the brain. Specifically, researchers have found them in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex, the inferior parietal cortex, and the medial temporal cortex.
How mirror neurons are used in psychology
How can mirror neurons be used in the study of psychology? One of the concepts currently being researched is how these neurons may affect our ability to understand others’ intentions. Spoken language can be an uncommon form of communication in the animal kingdom, considering that only humans typically use such a sophisticated language system. Other animals tend to communicate via gestures, body language, sounds, or other methods.
Mirror neurons can be a fascinating area of research when it comes to mental health professionals. It can be an essential part of a therapist’s job to understand what a client is feeling. However, it can often be difficult for clients to put their feelings into words. In those cases, therapists often need to be able to interpret nonverbal cues from the individual.
How mirror neurons and empathy may be linked
Some scientists believe mirror neurons may provide a biological basis for empathy and other social behaviors. When we see someone else make a facial expression we have made before, for example, we may empathize with the emotion associated with that facial expression. This can represent one method we may use to interpret each other’s nonverbal cues.
Nonverbal cues can sometimes tell us more about each other’s thoughts and feelings than actual language. For many people, the tone in which someone speaks to us may convey more than the words said.
You might imagine someone saying to you, “Knock it off.” You might interpret their emotion as annoyance or frustration if they said it while scowling and with a severe tone. But if they say the same words while smiling and laughing, you might perceive it to be playful and assume they aren’t actually annoyed or angry with you.
Mirror neurons and therapy
The link between mirror neurons and empathy may also point out how helpful mirror neurons can be to counseling. When a therapist (or anyone) interprets another’s feelings, they may often project their own experiences and emotions onto the other person. However, the other person may experience the same emotion entirely differently.
It may only be slightly helpful for a therapist to know what an emotion feels like to themselves. What they may need to know is what the emotion feels like to their client. While empathy can be helpful, it shouldn’t generally be relied on entirely in therapy or everyday interactions. We may still need to understand that, although we may somewhat understand what someone else is feeling, their experience may be different from ours.
Often, in our mirror neurons, what is being mirrored can be the self, not others outside you who may be making the same actions, gestures, or facial expressions. Mirror neurons may tell us how we would feel if we were in the place of the other person, but they typically can’t tell us exactly how that other person is feeling.
The accuracy of guessing others’ emotions
This could be why we often guess the emotions of others correctly and with more accuracy when interacting with someone whose experiences are like our own. We may have more difficulty empathizing with individuals with different life circumstances and histories than ourselves. Without finding some common ground, it can be challenging to empathize with others and “read” them correctly.
Some people may be better at finding common ground than others because individuals can have varying levels of accuracy in empathizing with another’s emotions.
This is where we can circle back around to language. We may not be able to feel exactly what someone else is feeling, but if we can understand that they are experiencing an emotion, we can ask them to explain what they are feeling and experiencing. This can help people feel more comfortable with you. In the end, people usually like knowing that they have been understood, whether differences remain or not.
Understanding this can help therapists better interact with clients, which may be one reason mirror neuron research has contributed significantly to psychology.
The possible connection between mirror neurons and autism spectrum disorder
Because mirror neurons are typically responsible for understanding social cues, and individuals on the autism spectrum often have difficulty interpreting social cues, it can make sense that research for autism and mirror neurons may be connected. Studies have shown that individuals with autism may have reduced mirror neuron function.
Because of where mirror neurons are located in the brain, some researchers also hypothesize that they could be linked to other autism symptoms as well, such as impaired motor or language skills. It should be noted, however, that this does not mean mirror neuron impairment causes autism. Instead, the impairment may be a symptom that can lead to more observable symptoms.
Research on how mirror neurons and autism spectrum disorder may be connected continues, and the answers are not yet conclusive.
Practical applications of mirror neuron research
Various leaders and coaches may be taking the information gained from mirror neuron research and turning it into practical applications. For instance, it may be possible that athletes could increase their abilities by watching other athletes perform. The idea here may be that athletes can reinforce skills they are practicing or trying to improve by rehearsing mentally. Research has not conclusively studied such theories, but it is possible that imagining certain activities could fire off neurons and reinforce or improve skills.
Getting professional help with social skills
If you’re having trouble relating to or empathizing with others, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have reduced mirror neuron function. A licensed therapist can help you learn better social skills, even if you are living with existing mental health disorders. Anxiety, for instance, can go together with poor social skills, and attending therapy sessions may help an individual address both challenges.
Benefits of online therapy
Online therapy with BetterHelp can be an excellent tool for those who wish to improve their social skills from the comfort of their home. If you feel uncomfortable speaking “face-to-face” via video call, you may also have the option to work with your therapist through a phone call or online chat.
Effectiveness of online therapy
Research shows that online therapy can play a significant role in reducing anxiety symptoms, such as those that may occur during challenging social situations. For example, one study found that online therapy can be effective in treating a wide variety of mental health challenges, particularly anxiety and the effects of stress.
Consider the following reviews of BetterHelp therapists below from people experiencing similar issues.
Online therapist reviews
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While some studies have shown that mirror neurons and related brain areas may sometimes be involved in empathy, there’s no evidence that strongly empathetic people have more mirror neurons than others. There’s also considerable debate over how important these cells are in the neurobiological processes associated with empathy. Experimenters have found examples where empathetic emotions can be activated without apparent involvement of brain regions similar to the monkey mirror neuron system.
What disorders are connected to mirror neurons?
Researchers have suggested that several types of psychiatric disorders may be linked to mirror neuron dysfunction. For example:
- A 2016 experiment found that less connectivity in the mirror neuron system (MNS) was associated with more severe schizophrenia symptoms
- Multiple studies have reported that difficulties with behavior imitation in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) might relate to MNS impairment
- Preliminary research suggests that developmental coordination disorder (DCD) might be linked to deficits in mirror neuron functioning
Research in this area is not yet definitive, and some studies have called these conclusions into question. For instance, the research results connecting autism to mirror neurons have been inconsistent. More studies will likely be needed to draw firm conclusions.
How do you trigger mirror neurons?
The mirror properties of these cells are based on the fact that they can be triggered in at least two different ways. If a mirror neuron is activated when you perform an action, such as reaching to grasp something, it will also be activated when you see someone else doing the same thing.
Broadly congruent mirror neurons may be triggered by a range of similar actions. For example, the same neuron that fires when you grip something with your hand might also activate when you observe a person gripping something in their teeth.
Do autistic people lack mirror neurons?
There’s no evidence that mirror neurons are absent in people with autism. However, some studies suggest that these individuals may have lower levels of interconnectivity between nerve cells in areas associated with the mirror neuron system, including:
These differences in mirror neuron functioning may be partly responsible for the challenges with social communication seen in people with ASD.
What's so special about mirror neurons?
The discovery of mirror neurons in 1992 by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues was widely viewed as a landmark discovery in the field of neuroscience. It was the first time that researchers had identified a specific class of cells that directly linked an individual’s actions to their observations of the actions of others.
This suggested a possible neural basis for important functions like social cognition and human self-awareness. By creating a mental connection between self-directed and other-directed actions, mirror neurons might help explain how people (and primates) relate to each other.
Since then, some of the early claims about these cells have proved hard to verify. Though they’re called mirror neurons, researchers are now skeptical that they directly “reflect” the intentions or emotions of others. Instead, they seem to play a significant role in the low-level processing of visual perception and motor action, while other systems may be responsible for determining complex behaviors like empathy.
What happens if you lack mirror neurons?
Although it’s not clear what would happen if someone had no mirror neurons at all, research shows that injuries to brain areas involved in the MNS result in problems with recognizing, imitating, and understanding actions in other people. Someone with few or no motor neurons might have a hard time recognizing what another person is doing, even if they’re watching it directly. They might also be unable to learn how to do tasks by seeing others perform them.
At what age do mirror neurons develop?
Since it’s not yet possible to functionally study individual cells within human brains, the exact age at which the mirror neuron system develops is unclear. Some researchers have proposed that the first 12 months of life may be crucial for mirror neuron development. Human infant information suggests that even newborns can imitate certain facial cues and that babies quickly develop the ability to track eye movements.
Others have argued that the mirror neuron system may develop more gradually as a result of associative learning. This model proposes that individual cells don’t develop as mirror neurons. Instead, they acquire this function in the process of learning and mentally classifying different actions.
How do you strengthen mirror neurons?
There’s currently no evidence that mirror neurons can be strengthened or what effect this would have. Some studies have shown that MNS activity appears to be heightened following imitation-based training in which participants watch specific motions and attempt to repeat them. However, this might be simply because this system is involved in the learning process — it doesn’t necessarily mean that the participants’ mirror neurons were strengthened.
What happens when you have too many mirror neurons?
No disorders or dysfunctions are currently linked to an excess of mirror neurons. As it’s not yet possible to classify individual cells in the human brain, we don’t have a direct way to assess how many mirror neurons a person has.
Certain studies have linked hyperactivation in certain parts of the MNS to social emotion processing deficits in autism spectrum disorder. Still, it’s not yet clear how these findings fit into the overall picture of mirror neuron functioning and mental health.
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