During the 1990s, a group of Italian researchers discovered that a group of neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fire (or are activated) not only when they perform an action, but also when they watch other monkeys do the same. However, subsequent studies have found that mirror neuron activation is not correlated with actions but with specific goals. Over the years, research into these ‘Mirror Neurons’ have found that humans also possess the same mechanisms.
Although the function of mirror neurons may seem simple enough, they really have an important function in our daily lives. Mirror neurons allow us to be able to know what another person is thinking or feeling, i.e. it is possible that the development of mirror neurons are a major component of empathy. Indeed, renowned researchers such as Prof. Ramachandran and Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen believe that this is the case. Mirror Neurons have been associated with Autism– a neurological condition which is characterised (amongst other things) by difficulties in understanding other people’s actions, intentions and thoughts.
Albert Bandura (1977) proposed that we learn through observing others performing different tasks (Social Learning Theory). For instance, (most) children copy most of what their parents are doing. It is possible that Mirror Neurons and related circuitry allow for this to happen. This proposal can be extended to the possibility that Mirror Neurons are partly responsible for the development of language and culture. If this is the case, it could explain how humans survive challenging situations. Culture helps us adopt to new environment, know what food to avoid and access better nutrients.
Image source: ScienceDirect.com
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