By Dr Jo-Marie vdM Bothma
As babies are initially mostly inexperienced when it comes to interpreting input from their senses, they technically have no knowledge base to draw from. I believe that it is where mirror neurons come into play. Mirror neurons have been identified as those that respond both when a person moves a specific finger, and when they watch someone else move the same finger (Kalat, 2009:237). These special neurons encode a complete action and the representations can be used to both imitate and understand the meaning of others’ actions. In humans, mirror neurons are found largely in the left hemisphere (Kalat, 2009:237; Kolb & Whishaw, 2009:232-233).
Mirror neuron activity can be witnessed when a caregiver makes different kinds of faces with their baby. An infant will stick out their own tongue or make a face copying the action made by the parent. Mirror neurons make it possible to experience the action by merely watching others. This creates the opportunity for a baby to not only imitate their parents, but also to learn the action. In that way they gain experience in how to move their mouth and tongue and how to connect with their parents. This imitation even though not fully conscious is not a reflex (Morban & Cruz, 2016).
Very short – and OLD, but nevertheless powerful clip on the basic principles of mirror neurons:
Similar mirror neurons in the language regions of the frontal cortex are likely responsible for the mimicking of sounds and words by children (Kolb & Whishaw, 2009:534). As with the motor skills of facial expression, mirror neurons are thought to influence language. Babies mimic many sounds around them, laughing and talking, in an effort to communicate. It would seem that mirror neurons provide an opportunity for the baby to learn by copying and interacting with others. As the baby develops they will add inflection and tone to communicate even before knowing what words to use. They have heard these traits and are mirroring them back with the expectation that their parents will understand and respond.
It is probably of more importance than we give it credit for to encourage parents to make eye contact with their babies and talk to them during BabyGym® classes. I try to model this by constantly having my hand on my life-size doll and talking to her as if she is a real baby. I am modelling the act of connecting with a baby and before you know it, the mirror neurons of the rest of the class will fire and all the mommies will look at their little ones and engage more actively. I would also talk ‘through’ the babies in my class. I might say something like: “Oh mommy, just look at how he is trying to find your eyes. I think he is telling you that he enjoys you massaging his hands.” It immediately pulls a parent back to connect with her baby and during those precious moments, I know that many neurons are discharging in that little brain.
It has even been suggested that mirror neurons may play a role in not only understanding the actions of others, but perhaps even their intentions (Kolb & Whishaw, 2009:582). Iacoboni (2009) goes on to explain that congruent mirror neurons (defined as neurons that fire during the observation of an action achieving the same goal or logically related to the action they code motorically) support cooperative behaviour among people by providing a flexible coding of actions of self and others. This flexibility is an important property for successful social interactions, as people perform coordinated, cooperative and complementary actions. Mirror neurons also code facial actions, in particular the ingestive and communicative actions of the mouth. Mirror neurons may thus facilitate our understanding of others’ emotions, because the face is the body part that we use most often to express our emotions.
On numerous times I have witnessed that a baby (or babies) starting to cry because another baby in the class is crying. Even though the baby does not understand why the other baby/ies are crying, they are connecting at the neuron level with the action of others and experience the same emotion. It is always so interesting for mothers when I make them aware of that. Mirror neurons therefore also influence emotional and social bonding.
While research on mirror neurons is just in the beginning, it is easy to picture the impact on child development both cognitively and socially. So, next time a mommy feels like her baby is not benefiting from being in a BabyGym® class, because he is a little cranky and only wants to sit in her lap and watch the rest from a distance – remind her about this wonderful neuron. Let her know that her baby is still building a better brain, by just merely observing and watching how other babies are taking part in the BabyGym® activities.
Morban, D.A.H. & Cruz, N.C.M. 2016. Copying the development: mirror neurons in child development. Medwave 2016 Jun;16(5):e6466 doi: 10.5867/medwave.2016.05.6466
Kolb, B. & Whishaw, I.Q. 2009. Fundamentals of human neuropsychology. 6th ed. New York: Worth Publishers.
Kalat, J.W. 2009. Biological psychology. 10th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Iacoboni, M. 2009. Imitation, empathy, and mirror neurons. Annual review of psychology, 60:653-670.