Thesis: Mirror Neurons

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Mirror Neurons

The discovery of Mirror neurons has led to new theories in understanding the development of human social cognition, empathy, imitative skills, learning skills, etc. Mirror neurons are very important and unique neuronic cell types that are activated not only by doing action but also by observing an action. The neural basis of empathy and callousness will also offer a new etiology for a spectrum of antisocial behaviors. With this new insight into the psychology of behavior, psychologists can now look forward to new empirical basis for understanding the basic therapeutic processes such as hypnosis, cognitive behavioral therapies and other similar interventions. For victims of stroke and other conditions that caused neural damage, observation therapy would offer a new ray of hope for the regeneration of damaged neural circuits. More research is awaited in this new and promising field of neuroscience.

Introduction

The science of neurology is so well advanced and significant breakthroughs in neurobiochemistry and neuropsychology are happening over the last decade or so. The discovery of mirror neurons by Iaccomo Rizzolati of the University of Parma in 1995 is one such important finding in neuroscience. When the Italian researchers were studying the frontal lobe neuronal firing in macaque monkeys in context of specific actions, they accidentally discovered that not only doing but also watching action performed by others induced similar neuronal firing response. Since then, several studies on human subjects have revealed the important role of the mirror neurons in developing 'action understanding', empathy, social skills, imitation skills etc. Some researchers also suggest that mirror neuron system is responsible for the evolution of sign languages. Given the importance of mirror neuron system in developing social skills, researchers started to believe that deficits in the mirror neuron system might form the neural basis for the spectrum of autism disorders. This discovery of mirror neuron cells has given an entirely new perspective on understanding the development of human socio-cognitive skills, self-awareness and relevance to the psychology of human behavior that it prompted one of the famed modern neuroscientists Dr. V.S. Ramachandran to say, "mirror neurons will do for psychology what the discovery of DNA did for biology."[ V.S. Ramachandran] A brief overview of mirror neurons system and its functional roles will provide a better understanding of this new and interesting field of neuroscience research.

Mirror Neurons Discovery and Properties

As briefly mentioned above, mirror neurons were accidentally discovered during brain electrode studies among primates. Mirror neurons were first noted in the ventral premotor cortex region (F5) of the primate brain. Subsequent research also identified mirror neurons in the posterior parietal cortex (PF) region. Mirror neurons respond not only to visual stimulus but also to hidden goal directed actions. ( hands grasping a hidden apple) Also, some cells in the superior temporal sulcus (STC) do exhibit reaction to visual stimulus of movements and observations of reach and grasp actions but they do not fire during execution of hidden actions. [Miall] In the pioneering study by Giacomo Rizzolatti, the premotor cortex region of the macaque monkeys started exhibiting activity when they clutched peanuts. When Giacomo Rizzolatti grabbed and licked an ice cream inexplicably, the same premotor regions of the monkey brain started firing. This coincidental discovery led to an entirely new concept of neurological functioning. The primate in this study responded not only when it executed a motor action but also when it saw another monkey or a human being performing similar motor function. The researchers could clearly infer this from the changes in action potential waveforms. The researchers also found that the action potential was slightly higher for doing than simply viewing.

Further studies with the monkeys showed that the neuronal firing was evident even for actions that did not have a visual context. In other words, even in the absence of sight of the action changes in action potential was visible. For example, in a study by Umilta et.al (2001) monkeys responded not only to visual stimulus but also the sound of breaking peanuts elicited sharp firing in the F5 region of the neuronal cortex. A follow up study by Kohler et.al (2002) also confirmed that the F5 mirror neurons or what are also known as the "audio-visual mirror neurons" fired in response to both visual as well as pure auditory stimulus. Subsequently Ferrari et al. 2003 also identified that the lateral side of the F5 region fired in monkeys in response to the different facial muscle contortions of the human experimenter. Thus these mirror neurons were named the "communicative mirror neurons." [Ferrari et al.]

It is important to know that only mirror neurons respond to both execution of an action and observation of an action. Unlike other canonical neurons, mirror neurons do not respond to object alone. The complex neural mechanism of these specialized cells are now believed to be responsible for coding for goal directed actions, imitative learning, and the development of social interaction skills. In humans, functional brain imaging studies have revealed distinct active patterns in the parietal and the ventral premotor cortices. Particularly, the anatomical similarity of the Broca's area in the human brain to the premotor cortex region (F5) of the monkey brain has led researchers to believe that mirror neurons are also involved in language acquisition skills. [Miall, 2003] Recent studies have demonstrated that human mirror neuron network does not only perform action recognition but is a complex system that also codes the intentions of others.

Mirror Neurons and Social Emotions

It is now strongly believed that the mirror neural system is responsible for the development of normal social skills, empathy and understanding the perspectives of others. Several studies that focused on the neurobiological underpinnings of empathy and callousness seem to suggest such a relationship. For example, Nelson et.al (2005) identified the limbic neural system as vital component in 'social information processing'. A study by pfeifer et.al (2008) used functional magnetic resonance imaging to understand the relationship between Mirror Neuron System (MNS) and empathy and interpersonal competence among growing children. The subjects of this study were aged (10.1 years+/-7 months). All the subjects exhibited stimulation of the pars opercularis, the frontal component of the MNS during observation and imitation of emotional expressions. The regions of anterior insula and amygdala also showed significant activity indicating a strong positive association with children's empathic behavior. The results of this study clearly suggested an important role for the MNS in the development of social affinity. [Pfeifer et.al]

Studies such as Craig (2002 and 2003) reported the activation of MNS during the experience of pain as well as when one observes or imagines pain in others. A later study by Jackson et.al (2006) while confirming this also reported that the difference between self pain and the pain of others is differentiated only by the intensity of the activation and not by the location of the neuronal activation. In other words, the pain pathways that occur during the experience of personal pain more or less overlaps with the pathways that are activated when one observes a loved one in pain. In particular, it is found that the mirror neuron system is connected to the limbic system through insula and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) thus clearly linking the role of the MNS in experience of as well as understanding of the emotions of others. [Shirtcliff E.A et.al]

Implications for Psychology and Psychotherapy

The discovery of mirror neurons has huge implications for the field of psychology. As neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of the University of California, Los Angeles, put it, "It's going to make a big change. Psychological studies started with the idea that a solitary mind looks at the world in a detached way. Mirror neurons tell us we're literally in the minds of other people." [ScienceDaily] Some psychologists feel that mirror neuron research would provide new empirical basis for understanding the basic therapeutic processes of psychotherapies such as hypnosis and suggestion. In other words, psychologists now consider that the reference to the "rapport zones" activation by using "the word as a physiological and therapeutic factor" may in fact be activation of particular zones in the brain by psychosocial cues. This relationship between mirror neurons and "rapport zones" therefore provides a neurological basis of hypnosis. Gregory Ball, a research professor with the John Hopkins University says, " study shows that social cues alone can have "powerful" effects on gene expression in the brain."[ Rossi et.al] This has implications for rehabilitation of coma patients who are barely conscious. Studies based on the use of fMRI have shown that in majority of the Minimally Conscious Patients (MCS), the cortical neuron response to touch and listening remains almost intact. This also provides more evidence for the efficacy of psychotherapy for the rehabilitation of MCS. [Rossi et.al ]

That mirror neurons also explain the psychology of behavior is illustrated by a simple experiment conducted by Meltzoff and Betty Repacholi. Through this study the researchers found that mirror neurons are not only involved in pure imitation but also in the regulation of behavior. In this… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Mirror Neurons.  (2009, December 15).  Retrieved December 7, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/mirror-neurons/9416

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"Mirror Neurons."  15 December 2009.  Web.  7 December 2019. <https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/mirror-neurons/9416>.

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"Mirror Neurons."  Essaytown.com.  December 15, 2009.  Accessed December 7, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/mirror-neurons/9416.