Mirror Neuron That Reflects “Myself”


Why is it that we often draw when we do rock-paper-scissors? Why do we instantaneously and unconsciously decide to play the same shape?

About this matter, the neuroscience research team at University College London in U.K. announced a result of a fun experiment. They asked the participants to do rock-paper-scissors for several rounds, and in every game, either one or both players were blindfolded. When both were blindfolded, the proportion of draws was 33%, which is in accord with the mathematical proportion. However, it went higher to 36% when only one of them was blindfolded; it was because the participant who could see imitated the other who was blindfolded.

Such a thing happens in our daily lives, too. When someone yawns in a classroom, other students also yawn as if it’s contagious. When talking, facing each other, if one rests one’s chin on one’s hands or changes one’s posture, the other does the same involuntarily. Sometimes, even if something is not that funny, if someone laughs out loud, you also laugh. Why do these things happen?

Neuroscientist Rizzolatti discovered mirror neurons by chance. As the name explains itself, a mirror neuron is a neuron that mirrors the behavior of the other as if the observer himself were acting. His research team at the University of Parma was studying the neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that control their behaviors when they handle an object with their paws.

In the experiment, they found neurons that became active when the monkey stretched its arm and grasped the food. But amazingly, the neurons became active the same way when the monkey watched a researcher grasping the food. This is the mirror neuron. It is because the monkey that watched researcher’s gesture felt as if it itself were acting.

The neurons in the brains of humans cannot be studied separately. That’s why they use Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging [fMRI] to see how the brains react. The result shows that for humans, too, the same part of the brain becomes active when one does a certain action and when they watch someone else do the same action. For this reason, neuropsychologists assume that humans too have mirror neurons. However, since it is difficult to see individual neurons, it is more proper to see it as the mirror neuron system for humans than mirror neuron cells.

Psychologist Dimberg of Sweden showed human’s mirror neuron system through a simple experiment. He showed the participants many different pictures of facial expressions, and asked them not to make any facial expressions when they see those pictures. And he observed how their facial muscles change. When a happy face was shown on the screen for 0.03 seconds, the muscles for smiling moved on people’s faces. Likewise, when they saw an angry face, there was a slight move of the muscles for frowning. Although the pictures were shown in such a short time that it was hard to even recognize what kind of pictures they were, the participants were unconsciously following the faces in the picture.

Another similar experiment shows the relationship between the mirror neuron system and emotions. In this experiment, the participants were shown pictures of different facial expressions, and their brains were taken by fMRI. What is interesting is that the brain part that reacted when the participants smelled a foul odor was equally activated when they saw a picture of a man who was unpleasant by smelling the foul odor. Just by looking at someone’s face, they felt his experience and related emotions.

As the result shows, the mirror neurons affect emotions as well as behaviors. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The word empathy is a compound of em, meaning “in,” and pathy, meaning “feeling,” and together it means the ability to project one’s feeling into another person. Therefore, empathy is closely related to the mirror neurons.

When we see someone get poked with a needle, we feel the pain and frown as if we were poked with a needle. This is the reason we can have empathy for another person’s pain or emotion. We copy another person’s action though we have never done it before or feel the emotion of another because of the mirror neuron system in our brains.

As for monkeys whose mirror neurons are mostly found in the brain parts that are in charge of actions, they can imitate simple actions only. On the contrary, humans’ mirror neuron system is also connected to the limbic system, which supports emotion. When we see another person’s facial expression, we copy it unconsciously as the mirror neuron system works. When the mirror neuron system works, the limbic system which is connected to it also becomes active, and so we feel the same emotion as the other person. Therefore, empathy is possible because of the imitation of actions caused by the mirror neuron system.

The mirror neuron system has a big influence on learning. Children learn new actions by imitating other people. Babies imitate people’s facial expressions, or open their mouths big when their moms open their mouths big in order to feed them. Through this, we can easily understand the relationship between imitation and learning. When the baby imitates the mom’s action, the mom also imitates the baby’s action, and they can emotionally commune with each other.

The intensity of the activity of the mirror neuron system is stronger in females than males, and in the order of closeness of the relationships—from family members, friends, acquaintances, and to strangers. When we see this result, the mirror neuron system is surely more significant in the relationship between a mom and her child. As they are intimately related to each other than to anybody else, when the child is sick, the mom feels even more painful.

Feeling other people’s actions and emotions through the brain is a mysterious ability that humans have. Just as we look at ourselves in the mirror, let’s reflect ourselves through the mirror neuron system of the people around us. The happiness and smile on their faces is our happiness and smiles reflected through their mirror neuron system. The reason we have mirrors to reflect ourselves in our brains might be the will of the Creator who wants us to look at ourselves through other people.

Ryu In-gyun, Empathy, the Key to Open the Heart (in Korean), Donga Ilbo, March 19, 2013
Won Ho-seop, Why Do We Often Draw When We Do Rock-Paper-Scissors? (in Korean), Donga Science, July 26, 2011
Lee Jeong-mo, The Reason We Can Make Others Imitate Us (in Korean), KISTI Science Scent, April 9, 2007
Neurology Research Team, Crossing the Limits of Neuroscience (in Korean), Bada Publishing Co., 2012
Choi Hyeon-seok, Human’s All Emotions (in Korean), Seohaemunjib, 2011