Imitation, associative learning, and mirror neurons

Imitation, associative learning, and mirror neurons
Our ability to understand the goals and intentions behind another’s actions involves us unconsciously mirroring those actions in our own brain.
Professor, School of Psychology and Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland, Australia

Early childhood development

This brief arises from Science of Learning fellowships, funded by UNESCO International Bureau of Education (IBE) and the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). The IBE-UNESCO/IBRO Science of Learning Fellowships aim to support and translate key neuroscience research on learning and the brain to educators, policymakers, and governments.

Executive summary

  • Mirroring processes and imitation appear to play an important social function. Students may therefore be driven to imitate particular behaviours not simply to learn, but also to establish social relationships and to show affiliation within a group.
  • Mirroring processes are stronger when observing people with whom we have a strong and positive social connection, as in-group members. Positive social relationships within the classroom, between students and between teacher and student, are therefore likely to be important for learning through emulation or shared experiences.
  • Even though mirroring processes are largely automatic, students must still be actively engaged and attending to the actions they are observing for mirroring processes to operate. This means that students cannot passively learn and reinforce brain pathways based on mirroring or emulation processes simply by having actions or examples displayed in front of them.

“Monkey see, monkey do”

There has been much excitement in neuroscience and psychology with the discovery of mirror neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys nearly 20 years ago1. These mirror neuron cells are located in the brain area responsible for body movement, and “fire” both when a monkey performs a particular action and when the monkey observes the same action being performed. They therefore represent a particular action whether performed by the monkey itself or performed by another. These cells are therefore said to “mirror” the brain state of the actor in the observer’s own brain.

Much theory has developed from these original observations in the monkeys. It is suggested that general mirroring processes underlie our ability to understand others’ actions and intentions2. By this, when we observe others’ actions, their brain states are simulated or mirrored in our own brain and we understand others’ actions and intentions through this simulation or shared representation of their brain state in our own brain. This is also thought to contribute to empathy, or our ability to understand and “feel” others’ emotions, by simulating their brain state and associated emotions in our own mind.

More recently, mirror neurons have gained attention in the field of education, through their suggested role in learning by observation or imitation, and through their social role in empathy supporting shared emotional and brain states with others.

Mirror neurons and mirroring processes

Mirror neurons are strictly defined as cells in the brain that “fire” their signal when an animal (or human) performs an action and when it observes that same action being performed3. Neurons in the brain with these “mirror” properties have only ever been conclusively identified in monkeys, although we presume that, as our close genetic ancestors, such mirror neurons would also exist in the human brain.

In humans, as we cannot measure mirror neurons directly, we consider more broadly mirroring processes in the brain. These mirroring processes are the brain processes that we presume are mediated by mirror neurons. We have good evidence that these mirroring processes operate in the human brain.

For example, we know that the motor cortex areas of the brain are responsible for all planning and execution of our body movements, and are also where mirror neurons have been found in monkeys4,5,6. We know that visual cortex areas of the brain, that receive their input directly from the eyes, are responsible for all visual perception and therefore our ability to perceive the actions of others7.

It is thought that, when we observe the actions of another, neurons in our visual cortex responsible for visual perception of the image of the action translate that action onto neurons in our motor cortex normally responsible for planning and execution of that same action. In this way, our own motor cortex comes to hold a representation or plan for observed the action as if we were to perform the action ourselves. It is thought that mirror neurons are responsible for this link between visual areas and motor areas representing the action and this translation of what we observe (from visual cortex) onto equivalent plans to act (in motor cortex) is what we refer to as the mirroring process8.

An interesting consequence of these mirror processes is that our own actions are automatically and unconsciously influenced by the actions of others that we observe around us. For example, we know that it is difficult for us to pat our head with one hand and rub our belly with the other hand, because the up-down patting movement in one hand interferes with the circular movement of the other hand. Surprisingly, even observing someone else patting their head will interfere with our own action of rubbing our belly. This is because mirroring processes, from observing the other’s head-patting action, will translate that action onto our own brain motor areas where it will conflict and interfere with our own concurrent execution of the different action of rubbing our belly. Such action interference effects between the observed actions of others and our own body actions are measurable in laboratory psychology experiments as an indication of mirroring processes9.

The origin of mirror neurons and associative learning

There has been much debate over the origin of mirror neurons: whether they are hard-wired in our brain and present from birth, or whether they develop with experience and learning through association between observed and performed movements.

In the 1970’s, a prominent developmental psychologist, Professor Andrew Meltzoff, showed that newborn babies are able to imitate actions from the time of their birth10. Newborn babies were said to copy tongue-protruding and mouth-opening actions when they saw those same actions displayed in front of them. In terms of the brain, this is a remarkable feat, as a newborn baby has no visual experience of their own mouth and tongue, and therefore no clear way to link what they observe of another’s mouth and tongue to those same parts of their own body.

Nonetheless, imitation in newborns and infants has been said to be a crucial process for social-cognitive learning in child development. It is said that, through imitation, infants learn that others are “like me”, which leads to learning of the distinction between self and other and the development of theory of mind, or the awareness that others have “minds” with separate knowledge, beliefs, and motivations that are different from our own.

As these processes that lead to complex social functioning are so crucial to our everyday human life, and are thought to be mediated by mirror neurons, it is claimed that mirror neurons have evolved in our brain, are hard-wired, and present from birth to support development of these crucial social-cognitive functions11.

An alternate theory for the origin of mirror neurons is associative learning12,13. In psychology, associative learning is a process by which we learn associations between items, events, or actions that frequently occur together. In terms of the brain, neurons and neural pathways that code or represent particular stimuli or events strengthen in their connection with each other when they occur together. In this way, items or events that occur frequently together come to share a strong connection in the brain, so that activation of one is likely to lead to automatic activation of the other.

For example, if we are walking on the street and hear a siren, we immediately expect to see flashing lights and an ambulance, police car, or fire engine. This is not because our brains are evolved and hardwired to link the sounds of sirens with the sight of emergency vehicles, but because the areas of our brain representing the auditory sound of sirens have formed connections with the areas of our brain representing the visual sight of emergency vehicles through frequent experience of them occurring together.

Similarly for mirror neurons, we have a lifetime experience of having intentions or goals (e.g. having a drink) that are linked to particular actions to achieve those goals (e.g. reaching our hand and grasping a glass). We also have visual experience of those actions linked with execution of the actions as we watch and evaluate visual feedback from our own movements. These intentions for actions, motor plans for the actions, and visual representations of the actions become linked in our brain and further reinforced with practice and experience.

This associative learning process is very evident when we see young infants clumsily reaching for objects near them, all the time watching intently the movements of their fingers and their hand relative to the objects, and refining those movements with practice. All the time, this is reinforcing the link between the child’s intentions and motor plans for those actions with the visual perception of those same actions.

We can therefore easily see how observation of others’ actions, motor plans for execution of those same actions, and intentions or goals behind those actions can be linked in the brain through experience and learning13. It is therefore thought that observation an action, leading to activation of visual representations for that action, will lead to activation of motor plans for that same action in the observer’s brain. These plans for action are then similarly linked to representations of the goals or intentions associated with those actions.

In this way, mirroring processes can lead to our ability to understand the goals and intentions behind other’s actions through simulation or mirroring of those actions in our own brain.

Mirror processes and imitation

It has long been known that we have a natural tendency to imitate the actions of others that we see around us. Charles Darwin even noted that spectators at leaping matches, popular at the time, tended to shuffle their feet as if imitating the competitors and wrote that man has a “strong tendency to imitation, independently of the conscious will”14.

We know very well from experience that seeing someone yawn triggers a strong tendency in anyone who observes to also yawn. Researchers examining this yawn contagion find that it is also associated with personality traits of empathy15. Those people rated as more empathic in questionnaires on personality traits are more likely to yawn when they see someone else yawn, and thereby to automatically imitate.

Imitation is also known to be an important part of child development and social learning. Children of course learn much through observation and modeling of the actions and behaviours that they see in others. Interestingly, researchers also suggest a social role for the imitation of others’ actions in establishing social bonds. For example, when a toy that the child wants is placed in a box and an adult demonstrates a (meaningless) ritual of waving a stick around the box before opening it, the child will tend to first copy the (meaningless) ritual rather than simply opening the box16. In contrast, chimpanzees shown the same actions will tend to be driven more by the goal and simply open the box without copying the (meaningless) ritual.

It is therefore suggested that imitation, as well as serving a purpose in learning how to achieve goals, is also important for showing belonging to a group by modeling the actions and behaviours of others in the group.

A well-known experiment by psychologists Chartrand and Bargh demonstrated this social aspect of imitation in what is known as the chameleon effect17. In this study, experimenters engaged in one-on-one conversations with student volunteers and either remained neutral with their body language or subtly mimicked the gestures and mannerisms made by the student volunteer. Afterwards, the students whose gestures had been imitated by the experimenter rated that experimenter as more likable, and reported having a better social interaction with them.

We therefore find that people tend to like others who imitate them and people also tend to imitate people that they like. Imitation therefore also plays an important role in social learning and in forming social bonds with others.

Mirror processes and language

Interestingly, the area of the brain that contains mirror neurons in monkeys, in the posterior part of the frontal lobes, appears to be the anatomical equivalent of the area in the human brain that is critical for speech and language, known as Broca’s area. This has led to speculation and evolutionary theories that mirror neurons may be responsible for the evolution of language in humans.

In our long distant ancestors, before vocal language, communication between individuals was largely by manual hand and facial gestures. Such manual communication is still seen in and can be taught to our ancestral cousins, the great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. Mirror neurons supporting the ability to perceive and understand the actions and gestures of others are therefore thought to play a critical role in communication through the perception and understanding of communicative hand and face gestures18.

Through evolution, our human communication has become more complex, by adding vocalisation to facial gestures, and then more complex articulation through mouth and tongue movements, to eventually become or current day speech and language19.

In support of this theory, there are still apparent signs of links between perception of actions and language communication. Of course, lip-reading involves purely the understanding of language communication by decoding and understanding observed mouth and lip movements. We also know that when watching and listening to someone speak, we subtly mimic the mouth actions of the speaker, thereby understanding by subtly producing the equivalent speech actions ourselves. This is known as the premotor theory of speech perception20.

Our ability to understand observed actions and gestures of others is therefore also suggested to be a critical part of inter-personal communication for understanding language.

Mirror processes and empathy

Mirroring processes are also thought to play a role in the recognition of others’ emotional states and the development of empathy. One important aspect of empathy, known as emotional contagion, involves sharing some of the emotional experience of the person we observe, so that we feel some joy when we see someone happy and we feel distress when we see someone in pain or distress.

Although mirror neurons are strictly only known for observation of actions and have only been able to observe them in monkeys, when we consider mirroring processes resulting from associative learning, we can easily see how observation of others’ emotions or particular situations can be associated with the same emotions or the feelings that would be elicited by that situation in us. For example, if we see someone in pain being stuck by a needle, or being tickled by a feather, we associate what we see with the felt sensations of the needle or the feather in our brain and we literally feel some of their pain or their tickle.

It is therefore thought that when we observe others’ emotions or body language gestures, the same neural states in their brain are automatically mirrored or emulated in our own brain, as a form of shared experience or emotional contagion21. We then come to understand their feelings and intentions through this neural emulation or mirroring process, by literally feeling some of their joy or their pain.

Importantly, these neural mirroring processes for empathy are strongly influenced by the social relationships that we have with the people we observe. Empathic brain activity is much stronger when we are observing people who we perceive as part of our own group or family or even race than for unfamiliar people22. This also fits with the role of mirroring or imitation processes in social relationships, as in the chameleon effect17.

Implications for education

It is clear that children learn much through the imitation and modelling of behaviours that they observe. To support this, the brain has a system through mirroring processes that allows observed actions and behaviours to be readily translated and represented in the child’s brain for imitation and understanding.

With this in mind, teachers can foster a positive learning environement by modelling to students the use of positive gestures, such as smiles and a relaxed posture, as well as conveying emotions that are advantageous for learning, such as passion, motivation and interest. Students are likely to activate those same processes in their own brain, leading to enhanced engagement and learning.

The topic of mirror neurons has gained much attention in education, but unfortunately there is also a lot of misinformation. It is therefore important for educators to be aware of what we really know about mirror neurons and mirroring processes in the human brain.


  1. di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V. & Rizzolatti, G. Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study. Experimental Brain Research 91, 176-180 (1992).
  2. Gallese, V. Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2, 493-501 (1998).
  3. Keysers, C. & Perrett, D. Demystifying social cognition: a Hebbian perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8, 501-507 (2004).
  4. Dushanova, J. & Donoghue, J. Neurons in primary motor cortex engaged during action observation. European Journal of Neuroscience 31, 386-398 (2010).
  5. Tkach, D., Reimer, J. & Hatsopoulos, N. Congruent Activity during Action and Action Observation in Motor Cortex. Journal of Neuroscience 27, 13241-13250 (2007).
  6. Vigneswaran, G., Philipp, R., Lemon, R. & Kraskov, A. M1 Corticospinal Mirror Neurons and Their Role in Movement Suppression during Action Observation. Current Biology23, 236-243 (2013).
  7. Zeki, S. et al. A direct demonstration of functional specialization in human visual cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience 11, 641-649 (1991).
  8. Molenberghs, P., Cunnington, R. & Mattingley, J. Brain regions with mirror properties: A meta-analysis of 125 human fMRI studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 36, 341-349 (2012).
  9. Kilner, J., Paulignan, Y. & Blakemore, S. An Interference Effect of Observed Biological Movement on Action. Current Biology 13, 522-525 (2003).
  10. MELTZOFF, A. & MOORE, M. Imitation of Facial and Manual Gestures by Human Neonates. Science 198, 75-78 (1977).
  11. Lepage, J. & Théoret, H. The mirror neuron system: grasping others? actions from birth?. Developmental Science 10, 513-523 (2007).
  12. Catmur, C., Walsh, V. & Heyes, C. Associative sequence learning: the role of experience in the development of imitation and the mirror system. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364, 2369-2380 (2009).
  13. Heyes, C. Where do mirror neurons come from?. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews34, 575-583 (2010).
  14. Darwin, C. The expression of the emotions in man and animals. (John Murray, 1872).
  15. Franzen, A., Mader, S. & Winter, F. Contagious yawning, empathy, and their relation to prosocial behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 147, 1950-1958 (2018).
  16. Horner, V. & Whiten, A. Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens). Animal Cognition 8, 164-181 (2004).
  17. Chartrand, T. & Bargh, J. The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, 893-910 (1999).
  18. Gallese, V. & Goldman, A. Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2, 493-501 (1998).
  19. Liberman, A., Cooper, F., Shankweiler, D. & Studdert-Kennedy, M. Perception of the speech code. Psychological Review 74, 431-461 (1967).
  20. Liberman, A. & Mattingly, I. The motor theory of speech perception revised. Cognition 21, 1-36 (1985).
  21. Prochazkova, E. & Kret, M. Connecting minds and sharing emotions through mimicry: A neurocognitive model of emotional contagion. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews80, 99-114 (2017).
  22. Meyer, M. et al. Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8, 446-454 (2013).