How Mirror Neurons Help You Relate To Others

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
iStock/PeopleImages
Improve your social skills with therapy

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 likely developed to help interpret what another individual meant by their gestures and motions, an ability we generally still possess. Consider, for instance, when another person smiles. We may immediately understand their emotion because we typically know what it’s like to smile.

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.

Getty/AnnaStills

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.

Getty/AnnaStills
Improve your social skills with therapy

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

“Kayla is the best. With how crazy the world has been and everything going on in my life at the same time I was in a pretty dark place. Kayla helped me improve my state of mind, communication skills and emotional awareness. My marriage benefitted greatly and everything I learned will stay with me forever.”

“Stacy has been so generous with her time and support, helping me build skills to better communicate in my marriage and support my in-laws during a difficult life transition.”

Takeaway

When you watch someone do something, mirror neurons in your brain may fire as if you were the one completing the action yourself. These nerve cells are typically believed to be related to social skills like empathy. If you’re interested in improving your social skills, one way to do so may be to work with a therapist in person or online.

Target disruptive behavior in therapy

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started