Mirror Neurons: Cells That Read Minds



Here’s a bit of insight you can see in action every day.

Do you ever feel the need to yawn, when somebody else yawns?

Do you ever know exactly what somebody is going to say next?

How about the situation where the the word is on the tip of your tongue, but neither of you can remember what it is, yet you both know exactly what you mean?

Mirror Neurons Help Us Know Other People’s Actions, Intentions, and Emotions

It’s like “monkey see, monkey do.”

How do we explain this monkey see, monkey do behavior and being on the same wave length?

… Mirror neurons.

They are basically complex cells that can mirror other people’s intentions or  feelings.

In the original study, a monkey watched a researcher eat an ice cream cone.  The monkey fired the mirror neurons that simulated eating simply by watching the researcher.  Since that original study, there have been various studies that show the impact of mirror cells to explain anything from empathy to imitation.

In fact, mirror neurons are significant enough to reshape our thinking of culture, philosophy, language, autisim and psychotherapy.

In the article, Cells That Read Minds, Sandra Blakeslee writes about mirror neurons.

You Can Sense Intentions

Blakeslee writes:

“The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.

Mirror help us understand the social meaning behind actions.”

Mirror Neurons Helps Explain Everyday Experiences

Blakeslee writes:

“Everyday experiences are also being viewed in a new light. Mirror neurons reveal how children learn, why people respond to certain types of sports, dance, music and art, why watching media violence may be harmful and why many men like pornography.”

Mirror neurons help explain some everyday experiences.

Different Actions Fire Different Neurons

Blakeslee writes:

“Studies show that some mirror neurons fire when a person reaches for a glass or watches someone else reach for a glass; others fire when the person puts the glass down and still others fire when the person reaches for a toothbrush and so on. They respond when someone kicks a ball, sees a ball being kicked, hears a ball being kicked and says or hears the word ‘kick.’”

Different mirror neurons fire when observing different events.

What Else Can Mirror Cells Help Explain?

I wonder what else mirror neurons can help us explain.  For example, do some fortune tellers have highly developed mirror neuron systems?  Do people that are great at building rapport have highly developed mirror neuron systems, or do they simply pay attention to them more?

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Mirror neurons help understand the actions, intentions, and emotions of others.  We’re social creatures.  Mirror neurons help us understand what’s going on in somebody else’s mind not through conceptual reasoning, but through direct simulation.
  • Humans have the most advanced mirror neurons.  Other animals such as monkeys, dolphins, and dogs have rudimentary mirror neurons.  Social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, embarrassment, disgust and lust are based on a uniquely human mirror neuron system   Humiliation appears to be mapped in the brain by the same mechanisms that encode real physical pain.
  • Mirror neurons help us imitate behavior.   Mirror neurons help explain how children learn.  They imitate what they see.  Human children involve their mirror neurons in imitating more than other primates.  In sports, athletes and coaches have used visualization to improve performance.  Observation can directly improve muscle performance via mirror neurons.  A study showed that children who watched violent television programs were more likely to behave violently.
  • Mirror neurons help explain the neural basis of empathy.  People with high empathy have particularly active mirror neurons systems.  When you see somebody get choked up, you can actually feel the feeling.  Therapists can use their mirror systems to understand a client’s problems and generate empathy.
  • Mirror neurons help you predict behavior.  For example, in one study, mirror neurons could discern whether somebody picked up a cup of tea to drink it or clear the table.  When you’re watching sports on T.V., your mirror neurons are activated.  For example, when your watching tennis, even if you have never played tennis, your mirror neurons for running, swaying ,and swinging the arms will be activated.  On the other hand, if you do play tennis, your mirror system will be highly activated.  when you watch a game you can better predict what will happen next.
  • Mirror neurons blend culture and biology.  Scholars originally treated culture as separate from biology, but new thinking suggests that each generated teaches the next by social sharing, imitation, and observation.
  • Mirror neurons help explain language.  For example the system for spoken language and sign language overlap.  The same circuitry is used for both complex hand gestures and the complex tongue and lip movements used in making sentences.  Autism may involve broken mirror neurons.  For example, many people with autism can identify an emotional expression, but may not feel the emotional significant of the emotion, even if they can imitate it.
  • Mirror neurons provide a potential neurobiological basis for transference and counter transference.  In transference, clients transfer their feelings about past people in their lives onto the therapist.  In counter transference, a therapist’s reactions to a client are influenced by the therapist’s prior relationships.  Simply put, someone says or does something that reminds you of the past.

The next time you go to yawn, take a look around to see if you’re mirroring somebody.

Or, after you yawn, see if somebody else mirrors you.

Photo by Anderson Mancini.


  1. This is really interesting! I’ve never heard of mirror neurons before (guess that’s what I get for being an English major in college!) and the whole concept is so fascinating. Thanks for sharing this here… I never would have known about it otherwise!

  2. Oh yes, we learn about mirroring behavior as an NLP technique to connect with others. Very powerful indeed! Thanks for the great summary on how else using this technique can help us!

  3. I must have quite an advanced daschund, as he sits up and mimics my ice-cream cone eating — especially when he smells I’ve got chocolate.

    But seriously, this is great, completely new to me. And I hope this research may provide, or at least point to help for autism sufferers’ broken mirror neurons — perhaps they can be repaired or spliced somehow.

    It’s amazing what new research is finding. Thanks for sharing.

  4. As a strong believer in intuition, I’m always interested in scientific research that seeks to explain how intuition works. Mirror neurons are new for me, and I find them fascinating. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. Amazing,
    At first when i was reading the post i thought my mirror neurons were activated since i kinda expected what next line would be but then i realized that i have read a book recently where this phenomenon was mentioned 😉

    Amazing stuff!

  6. Hi J.D.

    Everything you said here made sense to me. But I have never heard about the mirror neurons before. This is an amazing discovery.

    Thank you for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  7. @ Positively Present

    I was lucky that a friend happened to point it out to me. I figured their had to be some research or learning behind rapport and empathy, but if you don’t know what it’s called, it’s tough to find.

    @ Evelyn

    It’s interesting that research is finally catching up to some things that have worked for so long, even if we didn’t know why.

    @ Jannie

    Sounds like you have a chocalate lover on your hands.

    New research really does seem to be cracking the nut on things all the time.

    @ Melissa

    I love it when a bit of research is actually relevant to our day to day experience. It’s a wonwderful new lens.

    @ Alik

    It really is. I think knowing how something works always helps when you apply it. I think about empathy in a new light.

    @ Giovanna

    I like that now we know the name, we can find more information and articles on it. Knowing that things are called definitely helps.

  8. If you read a lot of what I call New Age “woo-woo” literature you read (like I have), this it not suprising. Certainly we transfer energy between us, but the exact mechanism has not been coroborated by science.. until discoveries like this occur.

    I’ve also heard stories of cells reacting even when they are disconnected from bodies. Blood is drawn from the body and then something is done to the person who gave the blood. They are cut or perhaps infected with something minor and the blood in the test tube reacts as if it’s still in the body. While I believe this is certainly possible, I can’t find the articles that talk about this and hence valid evidence that’s it’s true. Consider it a story unless someone else knows the source.

    The exciting thing is that with articles like this, science is catching up to what many of us intiuatively know. We are connected in some way that’s hard to measure, but we can see the results. Science is discovering the mechanism. It’s like blowing at a balloon and seeing it move, and trying to understand air pressure.

    In the western world, science = validity so I look forward to this sort of knowledge spreading. Send this to a bunch of your friends and get the word out. I just did. 🙂


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