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Fast Learning and Mirror Neurons

Educators, trainers, and teachers are all looking for that one spark that will speed learning. And, while there is probably no one key element that will universally make everyone learn faster, mirror neurons are the closest we’ve been able to come. In fact, mirror neurons are plastic, they can be made more or less effective through outside influences. This issue of PILOTed is written by Herbert Weisburgh. Herb is a Junior at Babson College, although he’ll be spending next semester in Turkey.

Teaching means nothing without learning. It is a simple truth that every educator, academic or otherwise, has had to deal with. But why should children learn faster? Why do some teaching methods result in learning whereas others lead only to frustration? Some scientists think they have finally arrived at the semblance of an answer.

Children learn languages faster than adults. I was always skeptical about such a counterintuitive concept. If I can understand complex calculus and poetry, far beyond the capacity of most children, how could they be able to develop language proficiency with so much more ease? Shouldn’t the vast quantity of knowledge I have accrued over the years make the acquisition of more that much easier. After all, practice makes perfect. Sure, all the proof points to the fact that children do learn more quickly, but no one seemed to know why, until recently.

The theory goes something like this. Remember that old saying, “monkey see, monkey do;” well, it proved truer than was predicted. When humans (and primates) see or hear an action, to their brain, it is just like they are performing the action themselves. The tiny cells responsible for this remarkable reaction are mirror neurons, aptly named for mirroring observed actions through the chemical pulses they give off. Mirror neurons account for babies’ ability to learn to move, walk, and talk. They also explain why most people respond better to demonstrations than instructions.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so a moving, three dimensional, talking picture must be worth several thousand. In fact, one demonstration can be more powerful than an entire lesson. Try explaining to a child unfamiliar with the cooking process how to beat an egg. It is much easier and faster to just show him. The discovery of mirror neurons and their function may seem simple, but its implications are so vast that mirror neurons are expected to be comparable in impact to genes.

In 1980, Leonardo Fogassi and Vittorio Gallese of the University of Parma made a revolutionary observation. One’s brain reacts the same way watching someone else do something as when he is performing the action himself. This breakthrough discovery was not fully appreciated until 2000, when V.S. Ramachandran introduced the discovery to the forefront of science. Many experiments on primates and humans later, most of the scientific community has recognized the existence and purpose of mirror neurons.

In fact, mirror neurons have been a hot topic for research and discussion in the scientific community. Even more recently, the possible implications of the mirror neuron discovery and subsequent research have been introduced and debated in education. It will certainly affect the way people teach and understand how others learn, but there may be more substantial changes. Field trips may become a more critical teaching tool. The new trend of technology-driven learning may take a dramatic turn, because reading words off a screen is simply not as effective as watching others perform. Literature and other classical studies could become downplayed in favor of a more practical, physical course of study.

Streaming video and podcasts could be the homework assignments of the future. In classroom learning, chalkboards could return to even the most advanced math classroom. Instead of learning about history, students could live it! Everyone knows it is a lot more fun; now, we know it could be more educational too. Television may even become a preferred teaching method. My five-year-old-self is screaming “woo-hoo!” Hell, my twenty-year-old-self is saying that it “beats sleeping through another boring textbook.”

Still not convinced of the power of mirror neurons? I do not blame you. Conduct your own experiment. It is not hard to do. Watch a sad drama film and witness how you have the urge to cry along with the actors. Watch and listen to someone yawn. You will probably have the impulse to do the same, even if you are not at all tired. Next time someone is laughing, focus on them and relax. You will feel the impulse to laugh, even if you have no idea what was funny in the first place.

There was a recent study at the University College of London that tested mirror neurons in dancers, using video clips of ballet and capoeira dancing. It was found that people trained in an activity show more mirror neuron activity when watching that activity than those who have not had similar training. The implications of this study are obvious in athletics and other physical activity, but the same concept could apply to academic pursuits. The effect of mirror neurons is amplified by study.

If I speak Spanish in front of two people, one who has taken a course in the language and one who has not, the expected result would be that the person who has taken Spanish would be more stimulated.

Mirror neurons are not only important for teaching people, they can also improve basic human interaction. There is no evolutionary advantage in having a mirror neuron system, except for the ability to interact. If humans were not social creatures, we would still have digestive and motor systems, but mirror systems only become useful in social beings. In order to take advantage of mirror neurons, therefore, it is necessary to be in a social setting, not by yourself. Mirror neurons explain the appeal of watching sports, because if you know the sport, you are actually living through the game with the athletes themselves, explaining reactions like winces, increased energy levels, excitement, anger, and frustration. In a healthy brain (since there is evidence of problems with the mirror neurons in people with autism, this would obviously not apply), utilizing techniques to maximize mirror neuron stimulation could have a positive impact on social skills.

If you know that the act of laughing in itself has the ability to cheer someone up, it can be a powerful tool. Inversely, a frown and a sulk would have the opposite reaction. As a social being, humans have developed a copycat impulse. Peer pressure can simply be from watching. If one person is eating, others around may get hungry just from watching, because they have the impulse to eat. A good way to encourage behavior is to do.

Education is highly dependent on the proper functioning of mirror neurons. The goal of teaching is to establish and improve the functionality of parts of the brain and skills associated with them. Without mirror neurons, there is no basis on which to build learning. Learning would still be possible, just not as easy.

Another cause for interest is the psychological implications of mirror neurons. Not only is there evidence that empathy is directly linked to the mirror system, basic human interaction, understanding, intuition, social behavior, relationships, and caring may develop from mirror neurons. The study of mirror neurons could be an important link between neurology and psychology.

Observing certain human interactions may be a better way of diagnosing psychological problems, or, there could be cross-diagnoses and treatment, since the two are so intricately linked in mirror neurons.

The psychological implications of mirror neurons would affect education as well. Teachers have been picking out students based on character traits for a long time, but there may be a better way of pinpointing students with specials skills or needs. With more advanced diagnostic tools that are more reliable, special classes could become more prudent. There may be classes for students with particularly developed mirror neuron systems and others for students with weaker mirror responses. Even if the classes remain mixed, it would certainly be beneficial for teachers to know more about their students’ learning habits.

It could be a while until the discovery of mirror neurons has a major impact on day-to-day classroom and other educational activities, but it is one of the main topics of discussion in scientific communities today, especially in psychological and neurological fields. Educational institutions and supporting industries, with the exception of the particularly forward-thinking ones, are probably not going to pay any heed to the discovery or subsequent developments for years to come, but the study of mirror neurons has great promise for positive change. This may be the start of one of the biggest educational movements since the secularization of schools and we’d love to hear comments.