We republish this article from Laura Trujillo Estradafrom the Department of Cell Biology, Genetics and Physiology of the University of Malaga, and Agustina Maria Torres Priorisfrom the Department of Didactics of Mathematics, Social Sciences and Experimental Sciences of the University of Malaga, published in The Conversation on August 17, 2022.

Have you ever wondered why when we see someone yawn, we yawn almost immediately? Or how newborns mimic facial gestures like sticking out their tongues? And what about how we learn to use scissors or color?


It has a lot to do with some peculiar neurons called mirror neurons.

What are mirror neurons?

Mirror neurons are amazing neurons that participate in such important processes as learning, empathy, and imitation.

They were discovered by chance by the Italian neurobiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti in 1996. Peering into the brain of a macaque, this researcher and his team recorded neurons that were activated not only when the animal executed the action, but also when they observed another equal doing the same activity. Moreover, in both cases the premotor cortex was activated in the same way.


It was soon found that exactly the same thing happens in humans. For example, when we watch someone climb stairs, the motor neurons that correspond to those movements are activated without us taking a single step. And, in general, when we watch another individual perform an action, without the need to speak, our mirror neurons they can put us in the same situationmentally simulate it as if it were happening to us.

Not only that: this type of nerve cells allow us understand the intention with which the action is performed.

Another of its properties is that sound activated associated with an action. For example, listening to how a paper is torn emulate mentally that action, although we do not get to see it.


Where are they?

Mirror neurons are located in four brain regions that communicate with each other: the premotor area, the frontal gyrus, the parietal lobe and the temporal sulcus.

Different functions reside in these zones:

  • The premotor area manages the movements and controls the muscles.
  • The lower frontal twist It intervenes in executive control, the management of social and affective behaviors and decision making.
  • The parietal lobe analyzes visual sensory information.
  • The superior temporal sulcus involved in auditory processing and language.

learning and empathy

that mirror neurons exist essential for our species. To begin with, because of the role they play in the learning by imitation and observation. Second, because they participate in the acquisition of language.


And thirdly, they are essential in the development of empathy and the social behavior. Not in vain do they allow us to understand the actions of other people and also their emotions.

Mirror neurons have great clinical implications. They are affected in autism, schizophrenia, apraxia (inability to perform motor tasks) and neurodegenerative diseases, among other.

For example, motor, language, and social failures coexist in autism. It is not by chance that all these functions are related to brain areas where mirror neurons are located.


Harnessing mirror neurons in class

We can consider observational learning as any moment in which an action is observed and itse learn something new or change knowledge previous. We do not have to confuse imitation – for example, copying the gestures of an individual – with the observational learning. The latter is a change that lasts in the individual and produces a response.

By observing a process, mirror neurons prepare us to imitate the action. If during teaching we combine observational learning with the creativity of the student, we will obtain a more efficient learning. This will be internalized and will last over time.

All of this leads us to highlight the important role that educators play in the classroom. The students observe all the actions that the teacher. For this reason, we should put aside traditional teaching, merely expository and static, and carry out more activities that allow us to develop the capacity for observation.


Another aspect to highlight is the attitude that teachers present in the classroom. Mirror neurons allow us to understand intentions and transmitted emotions. Those passionate teachers who teach their subjects with enthusiasm and joy, achieve greater concentration and observation of the student, capturing his attention for longer and spreading his emotion.

For all these reasons, there are different educational methodologies that allow us to unite this knowledge about mirror neurons with useful tools depending on the context of the classroom. In any case, it is key incorporate new strategies to encourage motivation and use tasks manipulative (laboratory sessions, practical cases, etc.) that allow the use and internalization of the contents learned.

All the events that take place in the classroom, the dynamics of the classes and the emotional aspects that the teacher transmits to the students will condition the learning and the experience that the students live in the classroom.

The Conversation