The term mirror neurons refers to the controversial proposition that the same neuron fires both when a person engages in some activity and when that person witnesses others engaging in the same activity, either by seeing or hearing them do it. While it was initially believed that the brain’s frontal and parietal regions contained mirror neurons, new evidence suggests that other brain regions are involved as well. Much of the research into mirror neurons was previously conducted on birds and, especially, monkeys. More recently, however, scientists have become more and more eager to explore the mirror neuron system in humans.
Many researchers now believe that mirror neurons are essential for humans to be able to understand the actions of others, as well as to be able to imitate and learn new skills. One study performed several years ago at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) seemed to suggest that, by observing the actions of someone else, our mirror neurons can predict what the person will do next. How the neurons come be as “mirrors”, however, has not yet been settled.
It is thought that mirror neurons develop in the first months of life and are largely responsible for helping babies learn actions by mimicking those around them. Mirror neurons are also suspected to be involved in the development of human emotion, like empathy. Experiments using imaging machines, like the MRI, show that particular areas in the brain become activated when one experiences a particular emotion and the same areas are activated when one witnesses another person experiencing the same emotion. This would make sense because empathy, by definition, means that we at least acknowledge the emotions of others or that situation that another person is experiencing. Some in the field have gone so far as to suggest that mirror neurons make it possible for humans to interact socially with others and are primarily responsible for the development of language.
There is a growing number of medical professionals who believe that a faulty mirror neuronal system may be to blame, at least in some way, for autism. For instance, when examining the brain waves of autistic patients doctors discovered that the motor neurons fail to fire when the patient observes another moving about, the opposite reaction of what would be seen in the EEG of a normal person. Since mirror neurons allow us to understand the intentions and, more importantly, emotions of other people, it makes sense that a faulty mirror neuron system would lead a person to be unable to interact on a social level. These findings have been disputed by other researchers, however, and alternative explanations for the varying results have been proposed, including the fact that patients with autism tend to have brain anatomies that differ from that of normal people and that what we may be witnessing is a chicken vs. egg scenario.