Have you ever observed yourself being able to learn a skill, do something or behave in a certain way after seeing time after time someone else, act in a certain way? You may notice a friend wrinkle up his face in disgust while tasting some food and suddenly your own stomach recoils at the thought of eating. Maybe you are or have been an athlete. You probably learned how to execute a movement or do an exercise with the proper form by watching someone else do it, maybe a teacher or a coach. The great Kobe Bryant used to watch endless hours of tape plays made by Michael Jackson in his quest to become better and surpass MJ in the sport of basketball. Ray Lewis the NFL player for The Ravens, one of the greatest linebackers in football’s history made certain he watched with his team, and on his own certain plays from his career and examined how other teams played so he could know how to defend the ball and have an insight into the ways, other teams operated. Actors do it all the time, preparing for a role. The examples are endless giving me the opportunity to mention my own personal experiences at the end of the article but in the meantime let’s share some scientific information about this form of knowledge created via The Mirror Neurons.
A short introduction to Mirror Neurons
In the early 1990s, Italian researchers made an astonishing and quite unexpected discovery. They had implanted electrodes in the brains of several macaque monkeys to study the animals’ brain activity during different motor actions, including the clutching of food. One day, as a researcher reached for his own food, he noticed neurons begin to fire in the monkeys’ premotor cortex—the same area that showed activity when the animals made a similar hand movement. How could this be happening when the monkeys were sitting still and merely watching him?
During the ensuing two decades, this serendipitous discovery of mirror neurons—a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement—has radically altered the way we think about our brains and ourselves, particularly our social selves.
Before the discovery of mirror neurons, scientists generally believed that our brains use logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions. Now, however, many have come to believe that we understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. For mirror neurons appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. When you see someone smile, for example, your mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, creating a sensation in your own mind of the feeling associated with smiling. You don’t have to think about what the other person intends by smiling. You experience the meaning immediately and effortlessly.
Mirror neuron research, therefore, is helping scientists reinterpret the neurological underpinning of social interactions.
These studies are leading to:
- New insight into how and why we develop empathy for others.
- More knowledge about autism, schizophrenia, and other brain disorders characterized by poor social interactions.
- A new theory of the evolution of language.
- New therapies for helping stroke victims regain lost movement.
The 3 Forms of Learning might be linked with Mirror Neurons
Having read the material above concerning Mirror Neurons, you either have doubts about this part of the brain or you may found the information shared, very helpful because you can empathize with it using your own experience. For the sake of information let me cite the Major Forms of Learning.
People learn in different ways. And no one has a better learning style than anyone else. Some experts say there are as many as seven different learning styles, but it’s easier to narrow it down to three types of learning…
We’ll call them:
- Listening learners-Audio Learning
- Seeing learners-Visual Learning
- Touch / experience learners-Kinesthetic Learning
With the information given it seems that mirror neurons will likely be linked to all three types of learning giving you the ability to recreate the exact thing you just saw, felt or heard.
Learning A New Skill
In acquiring any kind of skill, there exists a natural learning process that coincides with the functioning if our brains. This learning process leads to what we shall call tacit knowledge-a feeling for what you are doing that is hard to put into words but easy to demonstrate in actions.And to understand how this learning process operates, it is useful to look at the greatest system ever invented for the training of skills and the achievement if tacit knowledge-the apprentice system of the Middle Ages.
This system arose as a solution to a problem: As business expanded in the Middle Ages, Masters of various crafts could no longer depend on family members to work in the shop. They needed more hands. But it was not worth it for them to bring in people who would come and go-they needed stability and time to build up skills in their workers. And so they developed the apprentice system, in which young people from approximately the ages of twelve and seventeen would enter work in a shop, signing a contract that would commit them for the term of seven years. At the end of this term, apprentices would have to pass a master test, or produce a masterwork, to prove their level of skill. Once passed, they were now elevated to the rank of journeyman and could travel wherever there was work, practicing the craft. Because few books or drawing existed at the time apprentices would learn the trade by watching Masters and imitating them as closely as possible. They learned through endless repetition and hands-on work, with very little instruction(the word ”apprentice” itself comes from the Latin prehendere, meaning to grasp with the hand).
If one added up the time that apprentices ended up working directly on materials in those years, it would amount to more than 10,000 hours, enough to establish exceptional skill level at a craft.
What this means is simple: language, oral and written, is a relatively recent invention.Well before that time, our ancestors had to learn various skills, tool making, hunting, and so forth. The natural model for learning, largely based on the power of mirror neurons, came from watching and imitating others, then repeating the action over and over. Our brains are highly suited for this form of learning.
When starting something new, a large number of neurons in the frontal cortex(the higher, more conscious command area of the brain) are recruited and become active, helping you in the learning process. The brain has to deal with a large amount of new information, and this would be stressful and overwhelming if only a limited part of the brain were used to handle it. The frontal cortex even expands in size in this initial phase, as we focus hard on the task. But once something is repeated often enough, it becomes hardwired and automatic, and the neural pathways for this skill are delegated to other parts of the brain, father down the cortex. Those neurons in the frontal cortex that we needed in the initial stages are now freed up to help in learning something else, the area goes back to its normal size.
In the end, an entire network of neurons is developed to remember this single task, which accounts for the fact that we can still ride a bicycle years after we first learned how to do so. If we were to take a look at the frontal cortex of those who have mastered something through repetition, it would be remarkably still and inactive as they performed the skill. All of their brain activity is occurring in areas that are lower down and require much less conscious control. This process of hardwiring and learning a new skill cannot occur if you are constantly distracted, moving from one task to another. You want to be as immediately present to what you are doing as possible.
So it is better to dedicate two or three hours of intense focus to a skill than to spend eight hours of intense concentration on it. Once an action becomes automatic, you now have the mental space to observe yourself as you practice. Using this distance you can keep notes of your weakness or flaws that need correction to analyze yourself.
Mirror neurons came to my attention while reading Mastery by Robert Greene. While reading I could think of more than 10 examples that I had used this kind of technique without ever knowing about it, or how my brain did it. Without getting into great detail, the most noticeable examples are:
- When I first started training in the gym I used to watch countless of hours of training videos learning the right way to perform an exercise. I was too stubborn to ask a coach to help because I felt that nobody would do it the way that suits my body. So I did it my way and learn the proper form while adjusting it to my training style. Even to this day if I want to workout or learn a new movement I use Youtube to get detailed info and most importantly watch how somebody does the exercise so I can mirror it that way.
- When I took part in my first theatrical play I was as a student I had to play a person who just survived a bloody attack that killed hundreds of civilians. Of course I had to be a little unstable and kinda ‘lost’ to give out exactly that. The feeling of being damaged both psychologically and physically. So I saw some movies of how people acted in certain situations and made sure to implement that into my school play.
- When I was 5 years old I started watching movies with my older brother. While I was just starting, learning my national language, watching films that were in English accelerated my understanding in the topic and with the help of practicing and having lessons and I was able to use, write, communicate, and realize English much faster than any other of my classmates.
In close Mirror Neurons despite the doubts that exist among the scientific community are a fact. We as human beings can learn how to do something, act in a way of feeling something by using our brain and vision to imitate and create a copy of the moment in ourselves.
Mastery by Robert Greene, Society for Neuroscience