How the brain mirrors other people


The discovery of mirror neurons in the brain 15 or so years ago has transformed our understanding of how children learn and how adults ‘read’ other people.

Mirror neurons are groups of nerve cells in the brain that fire if either the person sees someone else doing something and if that person does the same thing. For example, if you observe someone else smile then the mirror neurons will signal; if you smile yourself then those same neurons will also fire. Which implies that your brain is set up to ‘mirror’ other peoples’ behavour so that you can adopt it, understand it, or implement it yourself.

Which tells us a number of other interesting things:

  • Firstly, the brain is set up so that it can temporarily adopt the point of view of another person and extract information about what that person is trying and to do and why they are doing it.
  • Secondly we now know more about how humans learn. As everybody knows very young children learn by imitation. What we now know is that when children copy adult behaviour their brains automatically encode that behaviour so that they can mimic it within seconds. One reason why children learn so fast. And, also, why new cultural fads – slang, dress styles and gestures like the ‘high five’ – spread so rapidly amongst adults.
  • Thirdly, it has now become a lot easier to understand how most human beings can read other people so fast. If the brain contains neurons that simulate other peoples’ activities: their facial expressions, speech, gestures, movements and emotions then it will only take a split second for the brain to ‘read’ someone, even when you don’t know, consciously, that you are doing it. For example, your Headmind might, superficially, assume that someone you meet for the first time is nice, charming and interested in your welfare. Meanwhile Bodymind, using it’s mirror neurons, is taking a deeper assessment. It might notice, for example, that the eyes flicker elsewhere while you are talking, take in that slightly dismissive wave of the hand, that his smile fades away a split-second too short. Within moments your body is coming up with uncomfortable feelings while the conscious mind is carrying on with the conversation in the belief that all is well.

One weakness of traditional psychology is that it tries to explain how people learnt about other peoples’ intentions in terms of logic. Meaning that if the people you meet obeyed social conventions in terms of saying the right things, smiling in the right places, putting their arm around your shoulders, etc, then they might be ok. But Bodymind may know different. Which leads to a conflict between your ‘feel’ about other people compared  to what you think you may know about them. But because Bodymind uses intuitions rather than words to communicate to you those insights may be over-ridden by Headmind as ‘illogical’. To your lasting cost.



Image by  SashaW

3 thoughts on “How the brain mirrors other people

  1. anne January 4, 2021 / 3:52 am

    hi, can you send me the sources you used for this article? so basically do humans mainly learn by copying due to mirror neurons and if we dont have these mirror neurons we wouldnt be able to learn by copying? do humans learn predominanly in this method by observing and copyin g and is it unethical or immoral? is this normal as someone once told me 00% of human learning is by copying.


    • drjohneaton January 4, 2021 / 12:25 pm

      Hi Anne

      It is nine years since I wrote that article and research into mirror neutrons has expanded quite a bit since then.
      The best recent book on the subject is probably this one:

      Mirror neurons do not exactly facilitate learning through copying. What they do is to give us a sense of someone else’s internal experience, so that we can understand them better.

      The mechanism through which children and adults reproduce human behaviour is known as modelling (Albert Bandura).

      Your informant is mistaken in thinking that 99% of human learning is acquired by copying. Babies and children have motor skills, perception, (some) cognitive skills, and language acquisition hard-wired into the brain at birth. However, it is true that people acquire social skills, for example, largely through modelling.


  2. anne January 4, 2021 / 3:53 am

    sorry theres a typo – i mean 99% of human learning is by copying…..


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