Why mirror neurons mean that...

The Mirror Neuron System

I believe one of the most fascinating and definitely most contested discoveries to come out of the field of neuroscience, mirror neurons were first discovered in the early 90s by a team of Italian neuroscientists at the University of Palma. Led by Dr. Rizzolatti, his team observed that a specific set of neurons which fired up in the brain of a macaque monkey's when it reached for an apple, also fired up when it saw another monkey or person do the same, grab for an apple and that these neurons even fired up when the monkey only heard the action being performed in another room.

Having discovered mirror neurons, they were defined as

a brain cell that reacts both when a particular action is performed and when it is only observed.

Further research identified that most species have a mirror neuron system, us included. It is why a yawn goes around a room, why you wince when you see someone stub their toe, and why you automatically smile back at someone who smiles at you unless you are in a particularly grumpy mood! These are our mirror neurons in action.

What that means is someone else's actions literally and automatically activate mirror neurons in our own heads.

A yawn is the simplest example, most of us are not feeling tired before someone else yawns and we unconsciously mirror that action and feeling.

However, as the definition points to, it is a particular action, not any action. They don't fire up at random gestures and activities or arbitrary noises. Instead, their activation seems to be correlated with actions that have a goal or intention.

So when people take actions with a goal or intention, be it tiny, like yawning, or big like striking out on an adventure, professional or personal, we mirror their action, and the accompanying feeling it brings. Obviously, this is momentary, if someone is off around the world we don't then rush to get a ticket, but we do suddenly contemplate the concept and imagine how it would feel.

That is why mirror neurons are often referred to as the empathy neurons. This concept is a little contested, more for the implications and applications that attributing something to one sole system that is so very complex and still so newly discovered, with so much to learn.

In terms of how precisely mirror neurons do what they do and which part exactly they contribute to empathy, is as yet too complex a process to be fully understood. As with all neuroscience research what is known about the brain grows evolves and at times, contradicts former ideas or theories. So what we know about how the mirror neuron system works exactly is a contested space, inviting more research.

What is known and not contested is that they are the neurons of imitation and emulation and play a huge part in how we learn by observing others. And we do this with all of our senses sight, sound, smell touch, taste, all contribute to activating our mirror system. This enables us to imitate and emulate the behaviors we experience around us. It is suggested that the development of mirror neurons system is how created our cultures and civilizations.

In conclusion

...what you do makes neurons in my brain activate...

The implications are huge, aren't they?

Definitely, something to think about

And practically...

Goals and intentions are paramount, where you want to get to, your vision and passion can be contagious. So setting clear goals, intentions and visions is the most powerful way of communicating because it aligns other peoples thinking and feeling to yours. How powerful is that?

Transmitting People pick up on what we are doing, and because the intention is also part of the gift of mirror neurons, why people are doing what they are doing. Be aware of your motivations, explore your values, and authentically transmit what is most important to you. This is how you really influence people.

Receiving, If the loudest mood wins, our mirror neurons are being activated by someone else nosier actions and emotions. Ensure you are aware of when its happening and refocus on your own internal narrative, goal, and intention. We can actually train ourselves out of an automatic mirror neuron response. However, they are what build rapport and connection and we need that more than ever.

So if the loudest mood wins,

our responsibility to ourselves and those around us is to be aware. And if that mood isn't serving us then we need to change it...



Jump up and down


Cat videos, or your version of that


Laughing, watch something funny

Fresh air



A hug

A dog


By Maria Chase, NeuroLeadership Coach, founder of Chase Coaching, and neuroscience lead for Amplenary.

Amplenary is an online programme for ambitious professionals and entrepreneurs. Blending together the fields of neuroscience, executive coaching, and personal branding for the very first time, this is a turbo-charged professional development course unlike any other.

AW20 starts 20 October 2020. Attend a FREE webinar to find out more here.

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