Mirror Neurons in Education

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern.  Chances are you have heard about mirror neurons by now, but how have you incorporated the idea of them into your school?  If you missed it, there was a fascinating clip on NOVA in 2005 that explained the overview of these specialized so-called “empathy” neurons. More research has been done since then, and more questions and controversies (especially related to the question of whether mirror neurons have an affect on autism) have developed, but there are valuable ideas that have stayed constant over the past 26 years that we can use to improve our learning environment.

Nova 2005: Mirror Neurons

NOVA 2005: Short Video on Mirror Neurons

What are Mirror Neurons?

Initial work in the early 1990’s led by Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma, Italy, discovered that certain motor neurons would activate in a monkey’s brain when he observed a directed action. These neurons essentially mirrored in the observer’s brain what would have occurred if they would have personally done the action. Subsequent research has shown that human brains have similar reactions. By seeing others physically do something, especially something that we already have some degree of understanding of, our mirror neurons mimic the action and can help the brain infer the intention.


children-at-school-turkestanImplications for Classrooms

We already guessed that an important way humans learn is by observing and copying, but now we have the brain science to prove it. The research strongly suggests that humans are meant to learn together and from each other. We all get further, faster, by working cooperatively. Watching a teacher, mentor, or other student demonstrate a skill is a much higher-quality learning experience than just reading or hearing an explanation. Recommendation: Encourage all classrooms to have a “demonstration corner”; a destination spot that hopefully the students can move to, but at the very least physically shift their focus towards, where presentations can be highlighted in time and space.

Empathy. Mirror neurons could ery likely be involved in triggering empathetic responses.  It’s a common experience for us to yawn when seeing someone yawn, or wince when we see someone stub a toe. This mirroring could be a positive or negative influence in the classroom, so awareness is important in directing the outcome of group interaction. It’s not enough to just assign teams for group projects and say “go.” We’ve all seen the group where two students are diligently working together and the rest are socializing. Recommendation: Propose that everyone has something to offer, and that the ideas might come from unexpected directions. Then help the students understand the importance of truly paying attention to each other’s body language during discussions. With this understanding they can become better at noticing when someone has an idea to share, but might be hesitant, or noticing when someone is losing the train of discussion and starting to become uninterested.

Seating Arrangements. The emotional environment of the room can also be enhanced with how students are grouped and seated. Do you want an involved group discussion?  Have the students sit in a circle so everyone can be seen. Do you want to encourage solo/focused work?  Have the students pick a spot to work where they are facing a wall and not close to others. If you notice students communicating with their body language an emotion not conducive to the mood you want to encourage, ask how they are doing or create a reason for them to shift their posture.

SmilingTeacherHow Does this Apply to Teachers?

It’s not just students who are subjected to the power of mirror neurons.  If we are not aware, we can easily be subconsciously swayed to join in the lethargic mood of the 25 students staring at us, slumped over their desks. Knowing that this can easily zap the energy in the room (and yourself), hit the refresh button. Have the students stand up, move around (jumping jacks are my favorite go-to), and when they sit back down make a conscious effort to model the energy and interest level you want them to maintain.

The research on mirror neurons continues to expand, and no doubt we will have much more information in the near-future. At this moment, though, there is scientific proof that what was often supposed is indeed reality.  So now stand with a smile and open arms in front of your students and model with intention.


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