Advertisement

What are mirror neurons?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
There's an important biological component to habit formation, and that comes in the form of something called mirror neurons. Simply, mirror neurons allow you to observe someone else performing an action (say, those fellow members of the tribe starting a fire), and that observation makes your brain want to perform the very same action. Yawning after someone else does is the classic example; it's not contagious in the viral kind of way, but it is in the neurological kind of way. Play peekaboo with your toddler, and he will do it right back. Working like tiny video cameras, mirror neurons are found all over the brain and help us assimilate all of the content we receive every day. That content comes in the form of actions as well as emotions, even allowing us to feel pain and empathy when those around us are suffering.

When you observe something, mirror neurons process that information in one part of your brain, then alert other parts of your brain that you should repeat the behavior that you just witnessed. This process is what causes children in the South to grow up speaking with drawls; it's what makes kids of hot-headed parents more aggressive.

The formation of habits depends largely on how these mirror neurons are firing. A common parental mantra -- "Do as I say, not as I do" -- just doesn't work because of mirror neurons. If you tell your child to eat vegetables while you're gobbling down cheese-smothered fries, what do you think he's going to want to eat? If you yell, scream, and throw pillows when you get angry, how do you suspect he's going to react when Tommy from next door breaks his truck? Exactly.
YOU: Raising Your Child: The Owner's Manual from First Breath to First Grade

More About this Book

YOU: Raising Your Child: The Owner's Manual from First Breath to First Grade

There’s little doubt that parenting can be one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences you’ll ever have. But it can be plenty tough, too: Around the clock, you’re working to keep your...
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine

Our morality is largely dependent on how connected we feel with others; the more connected we feel, the higher our degree of generosity and compassion. Part of that biology comes from a phenomenon involving what are called mirror neurons. Someone does something around you (like yawns, or crosses her arms) and you pick up on it and reflect the same action back. Mirror neurons - like tiny, neurological video cameras - record life as it happens. They're how children learn, and why you may pick up a Southern accent after living a year in Louisiana. These neurons are found in various areas of the brain and they fire in response to people's actions. When you see a person performing an action, you automatically want to simulate the action with the brain (certain circuits in the brain may actually prevent you from doing it). This applies to watching someone dance on "Dancing with the Stars" or serve an ace at the U.S. Open, which is why we can perform better after a real pro shows us the way. Mirror neurons enabled the brains of our ancestors to dramatically increase in size because their learning (and survival) ability grew so dramatically.
The cool thing is that mirror neurons don't fire only with yawning and other inconsequential bodily blurts; your mirror neurons also react to emotions, generating empathy. When you see someone touched in a painful way, your own pain areas are activated; when you see a spider crawl up someone's leg, you feel a creepy sensation because your mirror neurons are firing. Social emotions like guilt, shame, embarrassment, and lust are based on a uniquely human mirror neuron system found in a part of your brain called the insula. It's why you feel sad in the face of tragedy; you can empathize with those people who experience it. It's what allows you to connect with other humans - and transcend the differences we have. It's also one of the reasons why church services and rituals can be so effective for helping people stay happy; they help teach you how you're supposed to feel and how powerful it can be to help others.

YOU: Being Beautiful: The Owner's Manual to Inner and Outer Beauty

More About this Book

YOU: Being Beautiful: The Owner's Manual to Inner and Outer Beauty

Most people think that beauty revolves around such things as lipstick, sweet eyes, or skinny jeans -- all those things that we can see (and obsess over) in the mirror. But the fact is that beauty...

Continue Learning about Neurons

Where is myelin located?
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MDDr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Myelin is the cover over nerve fibers. It is made up of an omega-3 fatty acid called DHA or docosahe...
More Answers
Can the brain grow new neurons?
Natalia S. Rost, MDNatalia S. Rost, MD
In the early stages of development, the brain is highly flexible: damage to a specific area can ofte...
More Answers
What is myelin composed of?
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MDDr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Myelin, the cover over nerve fibers that ensures nerve impulses move quickly and correctly, is made ...
More Answers
What are neurons?
Jumo HealthJumo Health
Neurons are nerve cells in the brain. There are millions of neurons in the brain. Neurons communicat...
More Answers

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.