Mirror Neurons

by , | Nov 20, 2020 | Blog, Science

Giacomo Rizzolatti is a neurophysiologist at the University of Parma in Italy. In 1995 he was leading a team of researchers as they mapped the activity of the F5 area of the brain in macaque monkeys. F5 is in the premotor cortex and contains millions of neurons that specialize in ‘coding’ for specific motor behaviors of the hand: Grasping, reaching, holding, and bringing objects (food) to mouth.

During a quiet break in monitoring, while the monkey was waiting for the next experiment to begin, one of the researchers was moving about in the lab and reached for something. The electrodes on the monkey’s F5 were activated. The monkey was not moving his arm, but simply watching the researcher’s arm move.

At first, it was considered a fluke, since scientists believed that the nerve cells for action were separate and distinct from the nerve cells for sensory observations. Repeated observation uncovered the existence of mirror neurons, as though the brain of the monkey and the brain of the researcher were somehow synchronized and overlapped, and the researcher’s physical movement actually existed inside the monkey.

At that time, neuroscientists were deeply invested in the paradigm that various brain functions were separated in the brain. The perception was completely isolated from action, and cognition lay somewhat in between; allowing us to plan, to attend, to remember, and so on.

The Parma investigators were completely unprepared for a motor neuron that was also a perception neuron. Initially, scientists were not mentally ready to challenge the assumptions inherited from generations of researchers. Quite a few years passed before there was a paradigm shift that accepted the existence and importance of mirror neurons.
Marco Iacoboni, a UCLA neuroscientist and investigator of mirror neurons, wrote that “Progress in science moves forward one funeral at a time.”

In the past two decades research has confirmed that human brains also demonstrate a profound mirroring effect. We understand other people by performing an act of internal mimicry, by letting some of the actions and feelings of others into our own heads. Instead of the existence of specific mirror neurons, there is a brain-wide mirroring system whose tasks are shared by a number of regions and pathways. The imitating effect occurs as nerves in the frontal and prefrontal cortex begin to fire along with neurons in the somatosensory cortex (responsible for bodily sensations.) Deep inside your brain, you
are experiencing what you see.

The system that recruits neurons from other areas of the brain provide you with input not just about sensations and actions, but emotions as well. Mirror neurons provide a comprehensive, detailed imitation of what the other person is experiencing. You can almost instantly pick up on the emotion of another person.

If you ‘catch’ a smile on the face of a complete stranger, or experience the tension of your own heart as your partner silently, coldly enters the room, you’ve experienced the effects of the brain-wide mirroring system through emotional contagion. Your neural pathways take in another person’s feelings and replicate them inside of your nervous system.

The mirroring system works on a profound level, activating even when another person gives only a hint that they are about to do something, providing a crucial element in the complex act of empathy. Vittorio Gallese, a neurophysiologist in the Parma lab, described the role of the mirroring system in human interactions this way, “The neural mechanism is involuntary, with it we don’t have to think about what other people are doing or feeling, we simply know.” From Marco Iacoboni, ” The mirroring system helps us in understanding our existential condition and our involvement with others. It shows that we are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another.”

The mirroring system can thrive only when it’s used repeatedly. In some people on the autism spectrum or dealing with other neurological challenges, it’s as though the mirrors might be broken, or at the very least, dormant. We believe that CalmConnect™ uses audiovisual synchrony to revive dormant mirror neurons.


  • Roberta Scherf is a producer, writer, and speaker. Her own experience with Post-traumatic stress disorder and as the mother of a child with autism fueled her drive to understand the nervous system. Roberta’s curiosity, passion and commitment led to the design of an innovative non-pharmaceutical system that helps people to manage their own nervous system and behavior. She is the inventor of CalmConnect, the first patented behavioral health program to integrate music, patterns, the expressive features of emotion, and movement as part of a self-regulation program currently being used in thousands of school districts in the US and Canada, as well as therapy centers, hospitals, clinics, and homes around the world. She attended Carleton College and the University of Minnesota, studied Speech and Hearing Science, Psychology, and Russian, and spent years working with non-profit organizations. Roberta is the Co-Founder of PrioHealth LLC, and contributor to the book, “Optimizing Learning Outcomes: Proven Brain-Centric, Trauma-Sensitive Practices,” edited by Dr. William Steele, (Routledge, 2017).

  • As the co-creator of CalmConnect and co-founder of PrioHealth LLC, Chris Bye has spent more than ten years developing programs to regulate the nervous system. He completed his undergraduate work at Gustavus Adolphus College and his graduate work at UW-Madison and has a background in music and human development. He has taught numerous classes at UW-Madison, UW-River Falls, and the University of St.Thomas, including Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics. As a featured speaker, he has presented at numerous conferences and seminars on topics ranging from integrating movement and music into the classroom, reducing anxiety and depression in people of all ages, and using tools to help those struggling with a variety of challenges. One of the founders of the Fly Fishing Film Festival in River Falls, Wisconsin, Chris serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for the Kinni River Land Trust, and as an Officer with the MN Grouse Dog Association.