Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

Blame it on the Mirror Neurons

Have you ever been told that you play in the same way as one of your teachers, even though you never intended to mimic them?  Or that you walk in the same way as your parents?  Have you been to a concert and felt as though your muscles were firing and you were actually playing with the musicians?  Or noticed that you listened to a recording and your fingers started to move as though you were playing your instrument?  Blame it on the mirror neurons!

Scientists have long known that there's a correlation between watching, copying, and learning, but only recently have expanded that notion to include the mirror neurons, which are

"a particular class of visuomotor neurons, originally discovered in area F5 of the monkey premotor cortex, that discharge both when the monkey does a particular action and when it observes another individual (monkey or human) doing a similar action"- Understanding Motor Events: A Neurophysiological Study, by G de Pelligrino

Basically, this means a few things:

1.  When you see someone doing something (playing an instrument or participating at an athletic event) or expressing a certain emotion (having an argument in a film), your mind is firing just as though you were actually doing that event.  That can explain why some people love watching sports, especially if they play/ed that particular sport.  It also explains why some people find violent movies to be distressing, because they internalize that violence.  This is a result of your visual mirror neurons.

2.  When you hear something happening, you also may have this experience.  Musicians know this well-you hear a piece you're playing or studying, and your body feels as though it's playing along with the orchestra or piano.  This is a result of your auditory mirror neurons.

3.  As teachers, we can't control exactly what a student mirrors from our demonstrations.  So if you tell students to play with less tension, but still hold onto issues of your own, they may copy your actions, rather than your words.  (Or if you try to help someone's posture while slumping.)  The same is true for your sound production, intonation, etc.  

How did scientists find this out?  This post explains a bit about it, but the simplified explanation is that Italian scientists noticed that neurons in the monkeys' premotor cortexes were firing similarly when they both ate a banana and saw a banana being eaten.  When applied to humans, this concept is met with some reticence and resistance, as with most science things, but does make a lot of science in practical application.

The question you may ask  is what about understanding and cognition?  We know that you can rationalize and process information as a way of learning, but most of us teach small children music (at least at some point), and they often just copy and mimic as an avenue to learning.  In addition, watching someone do something beyond your current level of motor skills can still fire those mirror neurons, if you have a basis for those actions.  (i.e., a beginning pianist watches a symphony performance of the Ravel Piano Concerto).  If you don't have a basis, those mirror neurons may not be firing so much.  

example: I'm not a big fan of watching sports (or sportsing, as I think of it), and I rarely played basketball, soccer, or football as a kid.  I do however like watching tennis, gymnastics, or track, and I imagine some of that is because of my mirror neurons.  I played tennis as a kid, and there is a connection between yoga/gymnastics/running.  I feel more engaged, as though my muscles could do any of those things at a given time)

So what's the conclusion from all of this?  Well, first of all, brains are pretty awesome.  Secondly, as a teacher, it means that you have a responsibility beyond what you say to your students.  (This is true of parenting as well!)  How you move and play will impact your students' performance and learning, even if they don't realize it.  I've thought of this more as a yoga teacher and body person-they way that you stand and execute postures affects your students' understanding.  On a more philosophical level, it means that we have the capacity to empathize with the whole of the world, rather than just our social/political/gender/race party lines.  Our mirror neurons are a way of breaking down the barriers of civilization constructs and this video does a great job of exploring and explaining that.

Curious?  There are a few great posts here on music and mirror neurons, courtesy of The Musician's Brain.  What about that whole sports/brain thing?  This article is also a good start.