Mirror, mirror in our brains

I really enjoyed writing this post. I truly can’t resist learning about our interesting little brains. I’m a sucker for a good psychological or neuroscience article on the brain. Here’s what I read this weekend.

Mirror neurons

In the 1980’s Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team of researchers from the University of Parma, Italy, discovered mirror neurons in the brains of monkeys. The mirror neurons fired to help the monkeys mimic what other monkeys were doing. In 2010, Rizzolatti was credited with proving that humans had and used mirror neurons, as well.

This June, at the annual American Psychological Science convention, Rizzolatti shared his updated research and new applications for the research. Shannon Polly and Genevieve Douglass (both graduates of the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania) summarized his presentation in a recent online article. (Source, 1)

“If you see someone kick a ball or if you read the word ‘kick’ the same neurons fire in your brain as if you were the one kicking the ball. Rizzolatti first discovered this phenomenon with monkeys and then began to study it in humans.”

This is big news, we don’t have to actually kick the ball, for our brains to record it, we just have to observe it being done and our brains code it, which may explain why men love watching football, but here’s the real kicker (pun intended):

“He [Rizzolatti] presented new data that motor neurons do not just code any act of movement. The motor act that is coded for monkeys is one that has a goal. In fact, in the brain it is the goal that is coded, not the movement itself.”

The “why” not the “what”

The process goes something like this:

  • we see;
  • we review – “Is there a goal/is there not a goal?” “Is there intention present, if so what is it?”;
  • we code – if we perceive a goal or intention is present, neurons fire, chemicals release and the goal, not the movement is recorded.

Our brains are hard-wired to help us understand what other people are thinking – their intentions – and then to code their intentions in our brains! We mirror the “why”, not the “what” of their actions. That’s how we empathize, how we know what others are feeling.

It might explain how humans encode culture. A New York Times article notes that Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at U.C.L.A. explained it this way, “Until now, scholars have treated culture as fundamentally separate from biology . . . But now we see that mirror neurons absorb culture directly, with each generation teaching the next by social sharing, imitation and observation.”

Possible autism application

Polly and Douglass also noted that Rizzolatii’s latest research involves autistic children, he explained at the convention that children with autism may code only the “what” – the action. Their neurons don’t fire the same as ours; they see an action, but they don’t know “why” it takes place. This discovery is leading to new ways of treating autism. (Source, 1)

Possible visualization connection

Another online article noted that mirror neurons may also be one of the reasons creative visualization shows positive results. We “see” ourselves doing what we want to be able to do, and our brains register it as being “done.”

“In the 1980 Olympics the Russians (Soviet) team did the following scientific experiment to boost the skills of their athletes:

I)     Group one did 100% of physical training.
II)   Group two did 75% physical training and 25% mental training (visualization).
III) Group three did 50% physical and 50% mental training.
IV)  Group four did 75% mental and 25% physical training.

Result: The fourth group showed the greatest improvement in performance. The Russian Olympic coaches concluded that mental training (creative visualizing) produced the following: a) Increase in personal motivation. b) Boosted athletic confidence because they visualized themselves winning their events. c) Improved Attention-Span by eliminating distractions from intruding on their training sessions.” (Source, 2)

Isn’t that amazing? The group that did 75% mental and 25% physical training showed the greatest improvement in performance. Lot’s of other studies have shown similar results.

Wishful Thinking

Why not start your week off with some Wishful Thinking? Spend five minutes predicting better, it truly can’t hurt and may help. Visualize yourself doing what you want to be doing. Predict how your week will go. Be specific. Fire-up those neurons! Who knows, you may see your way to a whole new future.

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