• Issue 106 / July - August 2015

    The Neurobiology of Imitation

    Hamza Aydin

    There are approximately 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) in the brain of an adult person. Each nerve cell is created with a capacity to establish around 1,000-10,000 connections with each of the surrounding neurons. The number of connections in the brain is larger than the number of all essential particles in the universe.

    Recent research in neuroscience has opened new horizons for understanding the brain both as a control center and as an important projection screen reflecting works of the soul. To cite one, it has been discovered that social environment has an affect on the functions and development of the brain. Therefore, these kinds of studies regarding the brain have started to take place in social circles during interactions with other people rather than on individuals in isolated settings.

    Mirror neurons

    One of the latest discoveries in neurology is mirror neurons. A specific subset of brain cells (around 20%) carry a "mirror" feature and are located in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. These are special types of premotor neurons related to vision and location. They are responsible for the neurological imitation of observed behaviors in one's environment. The mirror neuron system accounts for the fast repetition of other people's behavior in terms of the neurobiological standpoint. The mirror neurons that become active during social interactions with humans form part of the response for behaviors observed in other people. These neurons play a role in the neurobiological expression of superior-level human thinking and behavior, such as culture.

    Neural mirroring is the neural mechanism that takes part in shaping intra-group or inter-group subjectivity and prejudice; it supports theories of cognitive and social psychology. In other words, it is the selective imitation of behaviors performed by people that are observed, in the mind of the person doing the observing. This situation points to a replication and recording mechanism that facilitates imitation in the human brain. Therefore, mirror neurons open a new window for understanding human socialization from the perspective of brain functioning.

    The role of neurobiological mechanisms and hormones for the functions of the soul in human socialization is too significant to neglect. Whatever DNA means to biology is similar to what mirror neurons mean to understanding the spiritual side of humans. The social relations of a person are tied to one's perception of other people's behaviors, intentions, and emotions. The social psychology studies show that imitative behaviors are common, displayed automatically, and facilitate empathy. Here instead of concept based thinking, a direct act of copying is present. Social communication requires one to understand the intentions and feelings of people in order to develop suitable attitudes and behaviors. Because the human brain is programmed for imitation and replication, culture cannot be taught; it can only be learned through life, by imitation and replication.

    Recent research performed on monkeys revealed unknown functions of mirror neurons. A neuron group at the frontal section of the brain became active when a monkey observed another macaque monkey making a mistake. It is interesting that if the observing animal made a mistake himself, this neuron group did not activate. This was a surprising discovery. Later, similar cells have been demonstrated to exist in human brain as well. It is one of the groundbreaking discoveries of 2012 that mirror neurons do not activate when people make their own mistakes, but come alive when a person watches another person make a mistake.

    When a person is motivated to imitate people around them, either by witnessing their mistakes or a desire to obtain what they have, certain nerve cells become active in response to this feeling. The brain is given a role in the execution and expression of imitation, admiration, bullying, jealousy, and emulation. These mirror neurons partially explain how the brain is linked to the origin of phenomena like language, socialization, grouping, the desire to belong, imitation based learning, and cultural and mass movements.

    Experiments have shown that objects generate more desire when they happen to be in another person's hands than when they are with no apparent owner. However, because these desires will vary among people of different education levels, trainings, beliefs, and cultures, the corresponding brain responses will also be different. Humans have a natural tendency towards admiration for pleasant, nice, and appropriate things; but they also have a natural tendency towards envy and jealousy. These feelings motivate us to take on the traits of other people as our own; they help us to view others as examples to be replicated. Therefore, they play a great role in helping a person to survive and adapt in a healthy social environment. However, if a person goes too far in their emulation, it can lead to misbehavior.

    Social environment, peer groups, and media

    Why are people easily affected by their social environment, peer groups, and media? Why do they try to emulate what they see?

    The entertainment culture achieves its desired effects on billions who have turned into a potential market via commercials, social media, and computer games. The willpowers of the masses lacking a strong foundation of belief ÔÇô and who are devoid of personal discipline, educated thinking, and purified souls ÔÇô are easily suppressed. It is obvious that human psychology clearly acts like an easy customer that gives the almost exact same response each time it encounters such a world. We can see this response just by looking at how the brain functions through fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, which is a technique for measuring brain activity. The mirror neuron system is the neurobiological version of the effects of marketing, social media, visual arts, and computer games on humans.

    Mirror neurons especially make the effects of visual culture on the brain comprehensible.

    They provide answers to questions like, "Why are humans inclined to become what they see; why do they imitate those things?" And, "How do commercials and videos get their power?"

    Mirror neurons also play a role in the reflection of others' behaviors and facial expressions. An anxious or stressful person also makes us feel so. The attitudes that we observe and adopt are contagious because they are copied by the mirror neuron system. For instance, if a person or a child watches the behavior of his/her parents, they can learn these through the activation of mirror neurons. These things, once learned, constitute our subconscious collections. When learning takes place by seeing, such skills rapidly spread via imitation and mirroring. The spread of culture across a whole society or the gathering of people under a certain leader and that they show similar behavior under the same circumstances are related to mirror neurons in the brain.

    The presence of mirror neurons opens doors to the birth of new hybrid research fields like neuroethics, neuromarketing, and neuropolitics; they also enable the studies and investigations of the interface of physical and social sciences. Mimicking the mouth movements of native speakers is a skill for learners of a new language and it is facilitated by mirror neurons.

    Mirror neurons and violence

    The mirror neuron system is effective for learning violence through observation and watching. Children and youth learn violence through mirror neurons. Mirror neurons play more prioritized roles at the subconscious levels or in cases where the conscience and willpower are ineffective. In such cases, concept-based judgment or reasoning is not necessary. Computer and video games are important technologies that teach by sensory feelings but not via concept-based thinking. Children and youth insist that they are aware of the difference between video games and reality. This is subconscious-level recognition and the brain at these ages automatically records that as a reality. The mind mirrors the visual input instead of acquired knowledge. Virtual images and reality do not make any difference to the brain in terms of objective reality. Each action and image at the subconscious level is coded automatically in a sensory fashion in the brain.

    In conclusion, the existence of mirror neurons beautifully explains the fact that a neural mechanism is behind the existence of humans as a social being; at the same time, it clearly demonstrates why social environments are necessary for the healthy development of the brain, especially to set appropriate examples for younger children to adopt.


    The Mirror Neuron System. A Special Issue of Social Neuroscience. Edited by Christian Keysers, Luciano Fadiga. Published 30th November 2008 by Psychology Press - 258 pages.

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