Mirrors in the Brain

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Mirrors in the Brain
On a 1991 hot summer day in Parma, Italy, a lab monkey awaited its researchers’ return from lunch. The researchers had implanted wires next to its motor cortex, in a frontal lobe brain region that enabled the monkey to plan and enact movements. The monitoring device would alert the researchers to activity in that region of the monkey’s brain. When the monkey moved a peanut into its mouth, for example, the device would buzz. That day, as one of the researchers entered the lab, ice cream cone in hand, the monkey stared at him. As the student raised the cone to lick it, the monkey’s monitor buzzed—as if the motionless monkey had itself made some movement (Blakeslee, 2006; Iacoboni, 2009).

The same buzzing had been heard earlier; when the monkey watched the humans or other monkeys move peanuts to their mouths. The flabbergasted researchers, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti (2002, 2006), had stumbled onto a previously unknown type of neuron. These mirror neurons provide a neural basis for everyday imitation and observational learning. When a monkey grasps, holds, or tears something, these neurons fire. And they likewise fire when the monkey observes another doing so. When one monkey sees, its neurons mirror what another monkey does.

It’s not just monkey business. Imitation occurs in various animal species, but it is most striking in humans. Our catchphrases, hem lengths, ceremonies, foods, traditions, vices, and fads—all spread by one person copying another. Imitation shapes every young human’s behavior. Shortly after birth, a baby may imitate an adult who sticks out his tongue. By 8 to 16 months, infants imitate various novel gestures (Jones, 2007). By age 12 months, they begin looking where an adult is looking (Brooks & Melzoff, 2005). By 14 months, children imitate acts modeled on TV (Melzoff & Moore, 1997). And by 2 ½ years, when many of their mental abilities are near those of adult chimpanzees, young humans surpass chimps at social...
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