Auditory Reflections: Mirror Neurons
Mirror neurons are a concept. At this time, they represent more of an idea than an actual well-defined biologically based structure. Nonethelesss, they are often mentioned with regard to the way learning and communication occurs in humans, and are explored in this article.
By Douglas L. Beck, AuD
Mirror neurons are very likely an integral part of how humans develop communication. Perhaps the term “mirror neurons” is relatively new, but the proposed mechanism itself is as old as the hills. Wikipedia defines mirror neurons (in part) as neurons that fire when humans and other primates act and observe the same behavior. Thus, mirror neurons allow one to “mirror” behavior early, so as at allow more sophisticated and intelligent internalization (and perhaps organization) of the same at a later time.
Indeed, when babies observe moms and dads doing things like making silly faces and sticking out their tongues, the baby will often “reflexively” perform the same or similar motion (Levitin, 2006), without much thought and with increasing accuracy. Further, it is well established that we learn to listen first and then we speak, just as we learn to read and recognize letters and then we put pencil to paper (or crayon to wall) and we learn to write. Maybe this process is nothing more than mirror neurons acting normally? Perhaps the essence of mirror neurons is they facilitate imitation as a foundation upon which communication and cognition develop?
Welberg (2008) reported mirror neurons in monkeys act similar to their likely function in humans. That is, when monkeys act or observe the same action, the same mirror neurons fire. Welberg offered two recent (2008) fMRI studies supporting the mirror neuron hypothesis. One study involved hand movement and demonstrated that whether the motion was executed or observed, the same neurons in the supramarginal gyrus light up. The other study postulates perhaps subpopulations of visual and motor neurons were involved in what appeared to be mirror neuron activity. Welberg concluded more research is needed to definitively state whether human brains contain mirror neuron cells or not.
Perhaps faulty mirror neurons contribute to autism and other psycho-social and communication disorders in which execution depends on prior observation? Science Daily (2005) reported researchers at University of California at San Diego (UCSD) compared EEG measures from two groups; 10 normal and 10 autistic age-matched males. They noted in normal males, EEG activity was the same when they moved and when they observed others initiating the same movement. The autistic subjects did not elicit EEG patterns when others moved, only when they (themselves) moved. These findings were taken as evidence that individuals with autism have defective mirror neuron systems. Daniel Glaser (2006), a cognitive neuroscientist (University College of London) also investigated mirror neurons. He too, relates the possible dysfunction of mirror neurons as a potential piece of the autism puzzle. Specifically, he speculated that individuals with autism may have difficulty “reading” the emotions and movements of others.
Levitin (2006) stated mirror neurons serve a pragmatic function in humans. They train and prepare the being to make movements previously not made. Levitin noted mirror neurons have been identified in Broca’s area with regard to learning to speak. He further speculates that mirror neurons may be the mechanism at work when musicians hear and see other musicians creating music as they think through how those particular notes and sounds are created. And he points out many musicians can listen to a novel musical presentation one time and then perform it. Perhaps this is the result of extraordinary mirror neurons working seamlessly?
Gazzaniga (2008) reports voluntary control of one’s mirror neurons serves as the very foundation upon which language builds.
It seems there is a case to be made for mirror neurons as they relate to audition, speech, language, communication in general and education. The concept of mirror neurons appears to be an integral part of creating healthy young auditory (and other) systems which readily adapt and respond to speech and other acoustic stimuli. Perhaps maximally functioning and effective “mirror neurons” serve as the essence of speech, language and auditory skills? Certainly when hearing impaired and deaf children receive appropriate amplification (hearing aids, cochlear implants, FM etc.) early, the outcome is vastly improved speech, language and auditory skills, as compared to children amplified later.
Indeed, when children with hearing loss are identified and treated early, some 90 percent of them are likely to be mainstreamed by the time they enter school (Smaldino and Flexer, 2008). Therefore, although the concept of mirror neurons doesn’t necessitate change in identifying newborns with hearing loss or our desire to treat them as early as possible, it does offer a new framework within which we might view communication and educational processes.
By Douglas L. Beck, AuD, Board Certified Audiologist, is the Web Content Editor for American Academy of Audiology.
For More Information, References and Recommendations:
Gazzaniga MS. (2008): Human – The Science Behond What Makes Us Unique. Harper-Collins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-089288-3.
Glaser R (2006): Monkey DO, Monkey SEE.
Levitin DJ. (2006): This Is Your Brain On Music – The Science of a Human Obsession. A Plume Book. Available at www.penguin.com ISBN 978-0-452-28852-2.
Science Daily (2005): Autism Linked to Mirror Neuron Dysfunction
Smaldino J., and Flexer C . (2008): Classroom Acoustics: Personal and Soundfield FM and IR Systems. In – Pediatric Audiology Diagnosis, Technology and Management. Editors: Madell & Flexer. Thieme Books. ISBN 978-1-60406-001-0.
Welberg L. (2008): Mirror Neurons – Towards A Clearer Image. Nature reviews, NeuroScience. Vol 9, December, 2008.
Wikipedia: Mirror Neuron