Mirror neurons are the secret to empathy and imitation.
Imitation is a powerful learning tool. The human brain is equipped with different mechanisms that allow us to imitate actions.
Babies are able to reproduce facial expressions, and adults also imitate basic behaviors.
It seems that we are made to feel what others feel, to empathize with them and understand them deeply.
What is going on in our brain for this to happen? The answer is in mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons were discovered by the team of neurobiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti. Mirror neurons can be defined as a group of neurons that activate both when we carry out an action and when we see another doing it.
Biological interaction of mirror neurons in people
In human beings, the parietofrontal circuits integrate sensory and motor information, and transcend the simple control of movements.
The perception and recognition of others’ acts, imitation, or different forms of communication involve not only our body and the objects surrounding it, but also others’ bodies.
The fact that our brain reacts the same way explains learning by imitation, emulation, and also empathy, since we live the other’s action as if it were our own, and it helps us to understand it.
As human beings, we know how to recognize the gestures of other people. We can identify emotions just by looking at someone’s face. Even if we don’t know that person, we can still guess at what he or she is feeling, and often we are right.
Emotions are contagious
We are very easily influenced by others’ moods. When we work with someone who is sad and their face shows it, we are not only able to pick up on what they feel, but our own mood can be affected. Empathy not only gives us a sense of what other people are feeling, but it also allows us to put ourselves in their place, with their circumstances.
Mirror neurons come into play in our life every time we are in touch with others. They are the base of emotional empathy. We tend to laugh, cry, suffer, and become moved every time we see someone in front of us living an emotion in an intense and defined way.
How to use mirror neurons for teaching our kids
As human beings, we are born with mechanisms that allow us to imitate actions.
Babies, even after only a few days outside the womb, are able to imitate facial expressions. After a few weeks, they can already show basic emotional like happiness or anger.
Adults also imitate basic behaviors, although more selectively and less often, since the inhibitory mechanisms of the brain are found in the frontal lobes and we know that they are not fully developed until the first stages of adult life. All of this suggests that imitation is an important learning tool.
School and family life are a very appropriate context for the development of values, using mirror neurons as an ally that facilitates learning in a positive way. So:
- Show joy and optimism to sow security and serenity in your kids
- Control and avoid negative emotions to minimize their impact on the children, avoiding negative influences on their moods.
- Detect your children’s emotions and help them identify and handle them in the best way possible. In this way, you foster your children’s emotional intelligence.
- Accompany the theory about emotions with demonstrations and let the kids imitate you.This advice applies to everything that we want to teach the kids (brushing their teeth, picking up their room, saying thank you, etc.).
- Help kids interact with as many (good) people as possible. Their mirror neurons will be much more activated and will help them develop social skills and empathy.
- Teach kids the importance of paying attention to others’ body language.
Avoid overprotecting your kids
Overprotection and giving everything to your kids stops them from developing their brain and their own life.
If you want to have happy kids, don’t do everything for them. They need to learn how to navigate through storms. The frontal lobe is a really versatile zone that allows children to learn the best response to every situation.
The first years of life are crucial. When a baby is born, the brain weighs 350 grams, and in the first two years of life, the child has reached 75 percent of the development he will have as an adult. By age 5, the child will have reached 90 percent brain development.
During those crucial first years, stimulate the children and create a strong emotional bond that makes them feel secure and open to learning good values.
This article was originally published in the Spanish edition of Aleteia and has been translated and/or adapted here for English speaking readers.