The Athlete's Way

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Do “Mirror Neurons” Help Create Social Understanding?

Is the mirror system key to how social understanding is created in the brain?

Researchers from Denmark released a new study on Feb. 24 showing that specific brain cells called “mirror neurons” may help people interpret the actions they see other people perform. Mirror neurons are thought to be specialized brain cells that allow you to learn and empathize by observing the actions of another person.

The new study from Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science. The research was led by postdoctoral research fellow John Michael.

The researchers were able to identify that specific brain areas involved in the production of specific actions are the same areas that contribute to understanding the identical action in others. The researchers hypothesize that the same areas are involved in producing actions and understanding others' actions as part of the somewhat controversial "mirror neuron system.”

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"The findings may be interesting to therapists and psychiatrists who work with patients with schizophrenia or autism, or even to educational researchers," said John Michael. The researchers also believe this discovery might help people in everyday life, but emphasize the findings hold great potential when trying to understand why people with autism and schizophrenia have difficulties with social interaction.

From an athletic and coaching perspective, I have always believed that the mirror system is one of the best ways that athletes can learn from watching and emulating others. Mental rehearsal can also activate the mirror neuron system which is directly linked to the same motor neurons required to perform fine tuned motor skills.

Are mirror neurons linked to autism and schizophrenia?

John Michael says, “attaining knowledge of the processes underlying social understanding in people in general is an important part of the process of attaining knowledge of the underlying causes of the difficulties that some people diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia experience in sustaining social understanding. But it is important to emphasize that this is just one piece of the puzzle."

Some scientists believe that mirror neurons are the foundation of the process that enables a child to learn to walk, talk, and behave like their parents or peers by emulating their actions and behavior. The mirror system may be the connection between observing a task and then imitating or duplicating that movement. The mirror system may also play a key role in how we learn to empathize with another person’s joy and pain.

From an evolutionary standpoint, mirror neurons might protect a species from repeating fatal errors observed in another, without having to die in the process. The ability to learn from other people’s triumphs and mistakes without having to experience them firsthand is a function of the mirror neuron system.

Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys during the late 1990s. I have a section about mirror neurons in my book The Athlete’s Way. I have long believed that when you put yourself in the shoes of an athletic mentor or role model you can merge the actions and mindset of your ‘hero’ with your own mental and physical inventory using the mirror neuron system to optimize your skills and performance. 

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues at the university in Parma, Italy accidentally discovered mirror neurons when they were trying to measure the motor neurons linked to specific movements when they were feeding a monkey. During the experiment in Italy, one of the researchers was standing next to a bowl of fruit and reached for a banana.

As the researcher reached for the banana, the same neurons linked to the action were activated in the monkey’s brain. Rizzolatti explains, "How could this happen, when the monkey did not move? At first we thought it to be a flaw in our measuring, or maybe equipment failure, but everything checked out okay and the reactions were repeated as we repeated the movement.”

In The Athlete’s Way I write about the belief that autism might be linked to a malfunction of the mirror system. The new study from University of Copenhagen adds evidence to this hypothesis. Using magnetic stimulation to temporarily disrupt normal processing of the areas of the human brain involved in the production of actions of human participants, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the mirror system is involved in social understanding of another person’s actions.

This may be the first study to demonstrate a clear causal effect, whereas earlier studies primarily have looked at correlations, which are difficult to interpret. John Michael, explains the process: "There has been a great deal of hype about the mirror system, and now we have performed an experiment that finally provides clear and straightforward evidence that the mirror system serves to help people make sense of others' actions."

Theta-Burst Stimulation Is Revolutionary

The researchers in Denmark used an innovative technique for magnetically stimulating highly specific brain areas in order to temporarily disrupt normal processing in those areas. This technique (called continuous theta-burst stimulation) makes it possible to determine which brain areas perform which functions.

For example, if you stimulate (and thus temporarily impair) area "A", and the participants subsequently have difficulty with some specific task (task "T"), then you can infer that area "A" usually performs task "T". The theta-burst effect goes away after 20 minutes, so this is a harmless and widely applicable way to identify which tasks are performed by which areas.

In this study participants (20 adults) came to the lab three times. They were given brain scans on the first visit. On the second and third visit, they received stimulation to their motor system and then performed a typical psychological task in which they watched brief videos of actors pantomiming actions (about 250 videos each time). After each video they had to choose a picture of an object that matched the pantomimed video. For example, a hammer was the correct answer for the video of an actor pretending to hammer.

This task was intended to gauge their understanding of the observed actions. The researchers found that theta-burst stimulation interfered with subjects ability to identify the action. With continuous theta-burst stimulation, the researchers were able to determine that the activation of "A" contributes as a cause to people performing "T". This revolutionary method may be of great use to neuroscientists in the coming years.

Conclusion: More Research on the Mirror Neuron System Is Needed

Although this new research on mirror neurons is exciting, there are many in the scientific community who are skeptical that mirror neurons are a distinct class of cells—as opposed to an occasional phenomenon seen in cells that have other functions. It is also not completely clear whether mirror activity is a distinct type of response or simply an artifact of an overall function of the motor system.

Ultimately, whether or not mirror neurons are actually the key to creating social understanding remains a question. That said, the ability to be empathetic and compassionate is clearly linked to specific brain areas and 'bulking up' the volume and connectivity of these areas is possible through lifestyle choices, daily habits, and things like mindfulness training and loving-kindness meditation (LKM).

Some neuroscientists believe that observation-execution matching systems provided by the mirror neuron system (or areas associated with it) may be the key neural mechanism that allows others’ actions, intentions, and emotions to be understood automatically.

Interestingly, neuroscientists have found that autopsies of autistic children reveal shrunken cerebellums, enlarged cerebrums, and atrophied Purkinje cells. Luckily, it is possible to bulk up the volume of the cerebellum and stimulate neurogenisis of Purkinje cells through daily physical activities.

If you’d like to read more on this, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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