The Science of Mirror Neurons

Imitation and Autism: What are mirror neurons?

It seems like common sense that by watching someone perform an action, we are able to imitate that action (maybe not perfectly). However, there are systems in our brain that enable us to perform these imitations. Rizzolatti et al (1996) discovered “mirror neurons” in their observations of the brains of macaque monkeys. When one monkey was performing a certain action, certain neurons were activated in that monkey’s brain. If another monkey observed that monkey, the same neurons were active in that monkey’s brain as well, even if that monkey was not performing the same action.

mirrorSince the discovery of these specialized neurons, mirror neurons have not only been implicated in our ability to imitate physical actions, but also in our understanding of the people around us. “Theory of mind” or the ability to “know” what another person’s intentions are is related to the mirror neuron system. Studies have found that persons on the autism spectrum have abnormal or decreased functioning of their mirror neuron system.

Williams, Whiten, & Singh (2004) recall a 1953 article about a mother’s challenge in teaching her autistic child pat-a-cake. The child could not learn the game by watching her and could only master it by having the mother place his hands in the correct positions.  Altschuler (2007) proposed that having autistic children work with virtual online pets would improve their mirror neuron systems as they were challenged to see the world through the eyes of their pets.

Autism’s relationship with mirror neurons could also be improved with creative therapies such as ballroom dance therapy which involve teaching movements by having the students watch the instructors as they teach a step and then having the student imitate that step.  The Children’s Tomorrow Foundation’s Dance Dynamics program looks to offer ballroom dance to Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autistic children to improve the functioning of the mirror neuron system.


Altschuler, E. L. (2008). Play with online virtual pets as a method to improve mirror neuron and real world functioning in autistic children. Medical hypotheses, 70(4), 748-749.
Rizzolatti, G., Fadiga, L., Gallese, V., Fogassi, L. (1996) Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions. Cognitive Brain Research, 3(2), 131-141.
Williams, J. H. G., Whiten, A., & Singh, T. (2004). A systematic review of action imitation in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 34(3), 285-299.