Mirror, Mirror, in the Brain

Most of the time, when a colleague or co-worker calls me over to watch a video on Youtube, my first thought is to look at the time length of the video so I’ll know how long I’ll spend with a quizzical look on my face.  But even I could not escape the hypnotizing cuteness of the “Talking Twin Babies” video.  If you haven’t seen it, the clip shows a set of twins facing off babbling and gesturing like two old companions that are so in-tune they could finish each others’ thoughts.  The toddlers break through the developmental boundaries of pre-language to share humor, coordinate dance steps, and converse about something that looks extremely funny and interesting to both of them.

But is this just a case of “monkey-see, monkey-do?”  Is it just simple imitation?  Not at all, and what should amaze you, most likely having this power yourself, is the ability of Mirror Neurons to give you a meaningful “feel” for what another person is thinking or experiencing. Neurons are those amazing cells in the brain and spinal cord that help us talk, think, act, and feel.  It turns out that some neurons give us the capacity to empathize and connect with others.  Rather than just imitation, mirror neurons give you a real sense of what it means to “walk in another person’s shoes.”  Described in Mirror, Mirror in the Brain in Science Daily (Nov. 6, 2007), mirror neurons were discovered as “an offshoot of studies examining hand and mouth movement in monkeys.”

At first, it was suspected that they had the job of helping us imitate facial expressions or other basic communication behaviors.  New research has opened up the possibility that those special cells do much more, especially within the shared experience of parent and child.  Now we recognize that when children watch us cut an apple into slices, or when they see us giving a hug to another family member, they have a “feel” for these actions that goes beyond learning simple steps.

How deep do these connections go?  Will we find in the future that a parent really can sense that his or her child is in trouble even when they are not home?  One of the most interesting lines of study in mirror neurons are their reaction to “screen time,” or what kids are watching on TV or looking at on the computer.  There is some indication that the neurons are activated by events seen on TV or in movies but it will the amount of time our children and teens spend looking at a glowing screen change the way their mirror neurons activate?  Do we shut off a real quality of connection and empathy when we let them interact more with screens than other humans?  Maybe this explains the robot-like, disconnected stare we get back when TV and computer time is over, and why social chat conversations are so, like, totally random.

Now, with a deeper understanding for what these babies are really talking about, here is the link to the video that inspired this piece: https://youtu.be/_JmA2ClUvUY