Mirror Neurons: An Efficient Way of Learning

By Gianni De Bruyn

person with head in books

How many times have you thought about picking up a new skill, whether it is perfecting your jump shot to mimic Michael Jordan’s or learning a new language, in order to make yourself more marketable? If you are like me, then you have started this process multiple times. But after less than satisfactory results or progression, you decided to give up or allocate more time to it later.

Time is usually a student’s biggest constraint in regards to learning a new skill. Therefore, if we were able to use that time more efficiently, we might be able to learn faster with better results.

The key to learning more efficiently and faster lies with a specific type of neurons called mirror neurons.

What are Neurons?

Neurons are the body’s information carriers that receive and transmit information from and to the central nervous system (brain and spine). Millions of neurons are in connection with each other and communicate by sending an electrical impulse (action potentials) along their cell bodies towards their endings (axon). This process allows for rapid communication and signaling between neurons and different parts of the body.

The charged action potential (AP) reaches the axon of the neuron which signals the release of small molecules, called neurotransmitters (NT) across the space (synaptic cleft) between two neurons. When the neuron’s sensors (dendrites) receive these NT, they initiate another AP to forward the signal to their axon and start the process again until it reaches its target area for processing (Campbell et al., 2008).

How do Humans Learn?

Now that we know what neurons are and how they work we can dive into learning. Learning is a change in behavior as a result of experiences and can be split into two categories:

  1. Non-associative learning, which occurs when someone is exposed to a specific type of stimulus repeatedly.
  2. Associative learning, which occurs when we directly associate one action with another. A famous example of this is Pavlov’s dog and classical conditioning.

Both types of learning require multiple occurrences which stimulate the central nervous system and therefore also the neurons. These neurons fire the AP across the system and create a pathway for the information. The more a specific neuron is fired, the larger a network it will create and the easier it will become to fire that pulse, strengthening the connection.

This is exactly what happens when we learn something through repetition: The repeated provided stimuli will result in a firing of the same neurons, strengthening that pathway. In learning, this leads to a process called consolidation where the neural pathway is so strong that knowledge or experience transitions from short-term memory into long-term memory.

However, if we do not regularly stimulate these neurons or pathways, that information will fade, even if it is stored in long-term memory (Rizolatti & Fabbri-Destro, 2009). That is why you will forget a language you’ve learned previously if you do not speak it often.

How do Mirror Neurons Fit In?

Mirror neurons are specific neurons, first discovered in an experiment conducted on monkeys, to try and explain the learning process. The experiment showed that neurons in the brain are fired when they observed an activity as well as when they performed it. This meant that the neural pathway can be strengthened by observations through the use of mirror neurons (Rizzolatti & Fabbri-Destro, 2009).

How is This Applicable to Human Learning?

So, how are we able to apply this information into our everyday life and as a tool when learning new skills?

Let’s take the example of perfecting your jump shot in basketball in order to mimic that of Michael Jordan. You train your nervous system by performing the motion over and over again, laying the groundwork for a neural pathway. Let’s say that you are tired and after your training you decide to watch videos of Michael Jordan or of yourself performing the correct motion. Your brain will register this and therefore train itself by firing an AP across the mirror neurons.

However, we do have to watch out! You have undoubtedly heard the expression “learn from your mistakes.” This might not always be applicable or the best method to learn. Imagine if your basketball coach goes over the video of your last game and shows you what you did wrong? By visually observing what you did wrong you are actually teaching yourself the wrong move and strengthening that pathway. A better alternative would be for your coach to show you an instance where you did it correct and to tell you what you did wrong in another situation. This triggers the auditory system rather than the visual system.

Many aspects of mirror neurons still contain mysteries and undiscovered applications. For example, recent research has shown that a defect or lack of mirror neurons might be a crucial factor in the development of autism.

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  • Campbell, N., Reece, J., Cain, M., Waserman, S., Minorsky, P. & Jackson, R. (2009). Biology (11th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Publishing.
  • Rizolatti, G. & Fabbri-Destro, M. (2009). Handbook of neuroscience for the behavioral sciences. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing. doi:10.1002/9780470478509.neubb001017

More About Gianni:

Gianni De Bruyn is a Belgian student with a bachelor’s degree in physics and sports management. He earned his sports management degree, Magna Cum Laude, from GCU, and is currently enrolled in the MBA program. At the same time, he is taking his med school prerequisite classes, whilst also conducting research on the correlation between sleep efficiency and cognitive strength.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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