Feb 21, 2012 by Martha Burns, Ph.D

Mirror neuron system

What is a parent to do to get a child’s brain started out on the right path – to be able to concentrate on one task for extended periods, be able to handle rapidly changing information, and be flexible enough to switch tasks easily?

Well, it turns out the human brain seems to have a strategy: by developing two core capacities during the first few years of life, interactive play and language, the brain seems to become uniquely equipped to build a range of cognitive capacities.  Recent research suggests that a specific area in the frontal lobe – ‘the doing part of the brain’ - begins to wire itself very early in development through imitation of the movements and sounds made by others. This area, the so-called mirror neuron region, allows an infant to watch or listen to other people and respond with imitative or complementary movements or sounds.  

Because this area is the same region, in the left hemisphere, that is responsible for fluent, easy articulated, speech, researchers have speculated that it might have been an evolutionary starting point for development of human language. But, because it is also active in the right hemisphere, it seems to play an important role in social, and perhaps athletic, interaction. In fact, Miella Dapretto and her colleagues at UCLA recently reported research showing that children with autism spectrum disorders, which include a range of disturbances that impact, among other things, social skill development, have observable deficiencies in the mirror neuron system.

There is reason to speculate, based on the research now available, that exercising the mirror system in general, can build a brain that is better equipped for socialization, school, music and athletics. At this time existing research has demonstrated that exercising Broca’s area of the brain (and other areas that are connected to this area through complex cognitive networks), either through natural parental stimulation in infants or through intense specific practice in school-aged children or adults, one can systematically build a brain that is better equipped for many cognitive tasks including language, reading, writing, and math as well as remediate a brain that seems to have deficits or learning disabilities in one or more of these areas.

Every time a parent plays a game like “Patty-cake, Patty-cake” where the child and parent duplicate a routine with actions and a poem or song, the parent is helping the child to exercise the mirror neuron system. Parents have been doing these action/nursery sequences for years, and there are many similar routines in many cultures. Examples of “mirror neuron” routines that have been around and passed on for generations in Western cultures include – “So Big!” where a parent ask the child something like, “How big are you?” and the child and parent respond together holding up their arms in like fashion, “SO BIG!” or, with older children, “Eensie Weensie Spider” where parent and child imitate each other by alternately touching the thumb of one hand to the forefinger of the other hand to emulate the spider climbing up a water spout.

The wonderful thing about these types of routines is that they illustrate how intuitive parents have been for centuries, at identifying and exploiting the natural directions and priorities of brain development. What worries many of us in neuroscience is when parents abandon these time-tested and intuitive interactions with our young children, swayed by technological advances that enhance productivity and drive positive cognitive changes in a mature brain but by abandoning natural parental interactive routines may actually jeopardize the delicate balance of stimulation in the developing brain.

We must exercise caution when adults develop products that appeal to parents with names that inspire confidence like, “Baby Einstein”, if the products have not been subjected to reasonable controlled studies that will help us understand the impact of these activities on young brains. Most companies that develop products for young children do not conduct this type of research because the assumption is that toys and play activities that engage infants and keep them entertained are not harmful. But, unfortunately, that assumption is not warranted. Many of us who put our children in “walkers” or “swings” in the latter part of the twentieth century learned that these “toys” had unintended consequences (i.e., negative effects, on early motor development).

As developmental neuroscientists and other specialists have begun to understand the implications, both positive and negative, of early stimulation on later brain development, those of us in the sciences need to better inform parents and “toy” makers may need to attempt more accountable to parents. In all fairness, however, it may be unreasonable to expect toy makers to conduct independent controlled research studies that we have not even demanded of drug companies. So, the view held by many scientists is that an educated parent can look beyond the hype of advertising and provide for the young child in their care, a fostering environment that is calmly yet convincingly brain-enhancing.

For Further Reading:

The Mirror Neuron System and the Consequences of Its Dysfunction. Marco Iacoboni and Mirella Depretto. Nature Reviews | Neuroscience Volume 7, December 2006

The Mirror Neuron System is More Active During Complementary Compared with Imitative Action. Roger Newman-Norlund, Hein T van Schie, Alexander M J van Zuijlen ,and Harold Bekkering. Nature Neuroscience Vol. 10, May 2007

Using Human Brain Lesions to Infer Function: A Relic from a Past Era in the fMRI age?Chris Rorden and Hans-Otto Karnath. Nature Reviews | Neuroscience Vol. 5,  October 2004

Understanding Emotions in Others: Mirror Neuron Dysfunction in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Mirella Depretto, Mari S. Davies, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, Ashley A. Scott, Marian Sigman, Susan Y. Bookheimer, and Marco Iacoboni. Nature Neuroscience Vol. 9,  December 2005

Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Daniel Goleman. NY, NY: Bantam Books, 2006.

Neural Plasticity: The Effects of Environment on the Development of the Cerebral Cortex (Perspectives in Cognitive Neuroscience).  Peter R. Huttenlocher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002

Neural Mechanisms of Selective Auditory Attention are Enhanced by Computerized Training: Electrophysiological Evidence from Language-Impaired and Typically Developing Children. Courtney Stevens, Jessica Fanning, Donna Coch, Lisa Sanders,and Helen Neville. Brain Research Vol. 1205, April 2008.

Related Reading:

5 Things Every Parent and Educator Should Know About Early Childhood brain Development

What Does The Marshmallow Experiment Tell Us About Self-Control?