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Mirror Neurons - Beware Popular Folk Neuroscience

Mirror neurons have been said to be one of the most important discoveries in the past decade of neuroscience. Neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons could explain a number of sophisticated human behaviour and thought processes, such as empathy, trust and decision-making, as well as play a role in imitation, learning and possibly even language acquisition. A prominent neuroscientist, Vilayanur Ramachandran, predicted in 2000 that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology. In contrast to this, some critics warn to approach the idea that mirror neurons are the answer to what makes us human with caution.

What Are Mirror Neurons?

Mirror Neurons are primarily observed in primates. They serve a specific function, whereby clusters of these neurons activate in patterns which "mirror" the actual observed behaviour of another person (and sometimes even the behaviour of an animal) - as though the individual observer were enacting the behaviour being observed.

Mirror neurons are the reason why you smile involuntarily when you see another person smiling or why you yawn in response to another’s yawn. The various areas of brain activity which have been found to be consistent with that of mirror neuron activity include the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.

Another definition for mirror neurons is that they are a distinctive type of brain cell that fires when you perform an action, and also when you simply watch someone else doing the same action. For instance, when you are grabbing a cup of coffee, Motor neuron A (which also happens to be a Mirror neuron) fires to tell your hand to reach out and grip the handle of the cup. When you watch your friend pick up his own cup of coffee, Motor neuron A also fires as if you were picking up her cup of coffee, even if your hand is not moving at all.

Why Are Mirror Neurons Controversial?

It is important to note that the functioning of mirror neurons in the human brain is still fairly controversial and speculative. The reasons for this, is that the studies that have investigated mirror neurons have largely been conducted in monkeys and other non-human primates. In addition, there has been a swathe of media around mirror neurons often proffering claims that have, as of yet, not been established fully in scientific literature. There is still a large amount of further research needed to fully unpack and understand both the function and role of mirror neurons in human beings.

Mirror Neurons and Consumer Neuroscience

Now that you have a basic understanding of mirror neurons, we can focus on mirror neurons in Consumer Neuroscience. Consumer Neuroscience is a maturing scientific discipline, where the focus of most studies are within commercial spheres. This sometimes lends theoreticians and applied scientists to adopt some 'folk' neuroscientific theories to assist in explaining their results to clients. This may be the case with mirror neurons. Mirror neurons may help to explain away many behavioural, psychological and neurological processes related to empathy, trust and sometimes decision making. These simplifications need to be cautioned against. We still don’t fully understand how mirror neuron processes affect any of these aforementioned psychological processes (empathy, trust and decision making).

It is also important to know that the current methodologies used in Consumer Neuroscience don’t measure mirror neuron activity and there is very scant evidence at the moment to suggest that any Consumer Neuroscience measures ‘track’ or ‘correlate’ in any way with mirror neuron activations.

Mirror neurons are a really exciting field of Neuroscience, where we encourage those interested to stay tuned, as we are still on the doorstep of understanding these neurobiological processes. In terms of this we would caution the reader about references to mirror neurons in Consumer Neuroscience or Neuromarketing.

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