Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are neurons in the brain that “fire” when a person merely observes an action, mimicking the way that neurons would fire in the brain as if the person were actually performing that action.

Mirror neurons

Mirror neurons were first discovered in maqaque monkeys in by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma, Italy, during his team’s studies in the 1980’s and 90’s. One day, when one of the graduate students walked into a research room with an ice cream where a maqaque monkey was hooked up to a machine that measured his brain activity, he was shocked to see the monkey’s brain imaging immediately light up as if the monkey were holding and eating an ice cream. This accidentally discovery led to the eventually identification of the now controversial idea of “mirror neurons,” which have provided biological support to Girard’s mimetic theory.

Others have taken their research a step further and shown that the brains of young babies are “mimetic” in a way that goes beyond mere “actions.” Dr. Andrew Meltzoff showed that babies as young as 18- months-old were able to infer the desires of the people around them. In his study, an adult in the presence of an infant “accidently” failed to pull the end off of a toy dumbbell, acting out a game in which the adult clearly wants to pull the weights off the dumbbell but can’t seem to do it. When given the opportunity to play with the dumbbell, the infant would pull the end off of the dumbbell rather than mimic the failed action. Meltzoff’s study had a clear finding: the infants weren’t imitating actions; they were imitating desire. We only get better at it as we get older.