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Cognitive Friday: Mirror Neurons

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One of the interesting things about cognitive studies, or studies of how the brain works, is that oftentimes a piece of research into an area like medical research can also yield useful information for education or psychology. And so is the case with mirror neurons, a function of the brain, which has implications in all these areas.

Research into mirror neurons began for medical reasons; the literal use of mirrors to help ease the pain for people who had lost a limb and were experiencing ‘phantom limb’ sensations. These sensations caused pain for the patients, making them feel as if the lost limb were still there but in a severely cramped position. For instance, with a patient who lost their arm, mirrors were positioned to make it appear as if the remaining limb were in the place of the lost limb, and then basic physical therapy of stretching would be performed to work out the sensation of the muscle cramp. The patient would stretch, focusing in on an image that was mirroring relief, and over a short time, this proved to be a successful therapy for many patients.

Although it may not seem similar at first, this happens in learning too. When a student has a difficult topic to master, the frustration and stress can become heavy, and the student will either successfully learn the topic, or walk away from it. The use of mirroring can help in this instance. It would be similar to the instructional practice of modeling, but done in more of a one-on-one mode. A student could be walked through a set of procedures. Or, a student could be instructed through a series of questions that works as a dialogue, but also a monologue that the student can internalize.

There is a lot of research to be done on mirror neurons. What is known, is that this type of neuron (a neuron being the thing that actually does the processing and of which there are a vast many different types) is unique. It is unique in that mirror neurons are active in the same way when a person observes an act and performs an act. The implication for what a person is able to internalize and understand through observation is significant for educators.

Education is full of connections, both personal and in terms of knowledge. The recognition and understanding that occurs when a concept is learned stems from all of our use of mirror neurons. It can promote a lot of random learning, again from the simple power of observation, but it can also direct learning explicitly through closely connecting information together for a student, and transferring the knowledge from the adult to the child.

So, the question may not have been “Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” It might have been more worthwhile to ask “Mirror Mirror on the wall, what do you know and what can you teach us all?”

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