The old adage that we can only learn how to do something by trying it ourselves may have to be revised in the light of recent discoveries in neuroscience.
It turns out that humans, primates, some birds, and possibly other higher animals have mirror neurons that fire in the same pattern whether performing or just observing a task. These mirror neurons clearly play an important role in learning motor tasks involving hand eye coordination, and possibly also acquisition of language skills, as well as being required for social skills, but the exact processes involved are only just being discovered. In particular the relationship between mirror neural networks and social cognitive tasks has been unclear, and greater knowledge of it could shed light on problems such as autism that may arise when this process goes wrong.
This emerging field of mirror neurons in social cognition was discussed at a recent workshop organized by the European Science Foundation (ESF), which laid the ground for the first common research network dedicated to this fast emerging field, within the EU's 7th Research Framework Programme running until 2013.
The role of mirror neurons at all levels of social interaction is even greater than had been realized, according to convenor of the ESF conference Riccardo Viale, president of Rosselli Foundation in Turin, Italy and professor of Cognitive Science (University of Milan).
"Most of the speakers highlighted how the mirror mechanism is crucial for both more basic forms of emotional recognition and also higher aspects of empathy," said Viale.
Just as the same mirror neurons fire when observing and doing certain tasks, so other mirror neurons may be triggered both when experiencing a particularly emotion and when observing someone else with that emotion. At the ESF conference it emerged that mirror neurons involved in emotion resided in both the insula and cingulate cortexes, two regions of the brain known to play roles in emotions and feelings. However until recently the mechanisms of interaction between these two had been largely unknown. "In the case of emotions, we can say that there is a good deal of overlap between areas from the insula and cingulate cortexes," said Viale. "These areas become active both when individuals feel an emotion (e.g. disgust) and also when they watch someone else feeling that emotion."
Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1980s by an Italian group led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, which placed electrodes in the inferior frontal cortex of macaque monkeys' brains to study neurons dedicated to control of hand movement. This led to the surprising observation that some of the neurons responded in the same way when monkeys saw a person pick up a piece of food as when they were doing it themselves. This introduced the principle of the mirror neuron as a neuron capable of being triggered by imitation, as a mechanism both for learning and empathising in social situations.
While mirror neutrons cannot be observed directly in humans because electrodes cannot be inserted into their brains, the action has been inferred by imaging of the whole brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This showed patterns of brain activity consistent with the firing of motor neurons.
More recently motor neurons have also been discovered in birds. "This suggests that such a sensory-motor mechanism is not confined to primates, but is shared by different phyla," said Viale. However the mechanism is not thought to be present in more primitive animals, including the lower cold blooded vertebrates, that is fish, reptiles and amphibians.