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Learning and Mirror Neuron System

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Recent research in neuroscience clearly indicates the important role played by mirror neuron system in education. This leads to the possibility that they play a significant role in the convergence of perception and action.

Here, we take up an article by Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California, "The Smoke Around Mirror Neurons : Goals as Sociocultural and Emotional Organizers of Perception and Action in Learning." MBE, Vol.2, No.2, p 67-71. The author has contributed a number of articles to this journal.

The mirror neuron system was discovered in 1996 by neurophysiologists in Italy who were researching the brain of macaque monkeys. They found that the neurons that responded when monkeys reached for food also responded when they saw a person reach for food. This response was considered to be a kind of "mirroring," and the activated neurons were called "mirror neurons." They reported that this took place in the monkey inferior frontal and inferior parietal cortex. This research has led to the discovery of a mirror neuron system in not only humans, but even bird species.

While these findings were based on response to visual information, experiments have also confirmed response to sound. It was shown that after monkeys were allowed to rip pieces of paper and listened to the sound of paper being ripped, the mirror neuron system in the monkeys' brains showed an increase in activity. Monkeys understood the meaning of the sound they had perceived earlier and followed with the related action. This suggests that mirror neurons are involved in the convergence of perception and action. By contrast, monkeys who had never ripped paper showed neither an increase in mirror neuron activity, even when they heard the sound of ripping paper, nor followed with a related action. Considering that the monkeys responded not only to visual information, but also to sound, this indicates a strong relation between the mirror neuron system and education.

Recent research has steadily clarified the functions of the mirror neuron system, in particular, the importance of understanding goals and intentions. Moreover, what determines the activity of the mirror neurons is the type of action. For example, experiments have established that responses distinguish between the action of putting something in the mouth and putting something inside a box.

The mirror neuron system is also seen to be related to empathy. This is because a certain part of the brain (in particular, anterior insula and prefrontal cortex) reacts to one's own emotions (pleasure, displeasure, pain, etc.) and also becomes more active when it observes emotions in others. In connection with this, the mirror neuron system is thought to play an important role in establishing the logic of emotions in which simulation appears to have a significant function.

The mirror neuron system may be related to language development through simulation because in humans, the mirror neuron system that responds to language are reported in interior frontal cortex near the Broca's area, which is the area of the brain linked to speech production.

Mirror neuron system is considered to be important for acquiring new techniques through simulation, but what is this mechanism of development? It appears that mirror neuron system is developed by 12 months after birth and help infants in understanding the behavior of others. There is, however, no research on newborns, and for this reason, the mimicking behavior often seen in newborns, such sticking out the tongue, may be a particular type of mimicking that does not need mirror neuron system.

In this sense, we could say that mirror neuron system plays a most important role in the process by which an infant, who is born as a biological being, becomes an adult human or social being through being raised, cared for, and educated. Observing children as they grow, it is also clear that learning is not just a matter of passively acquiring information from parents, other adults who care for them, and specialists like child care professionals or teachers. Rather, children interact with the environment, and the reciprocal interplay between perception of the reflexes that take place in these interactions and action, and furthermore, behavior, indicate that mirror neuron system is central to learning. Given that the child's living environment is the site of these interactions, society and culture as modes of information become extremely significant.

Dr. Immordino-Yang's research report in 2007, "A tale of two cases: Lessons for education from the study of two boys living with half their brains" took up the cases of two boys: Nico (missing his right cerebral hemisphere) and Brooke (missing his left). While their young age at surgery must be taken into consideration, they were able to recover neurological function to an unexpected degree. This is due to their high motivation and favorable living environment. Dr. Immordino-Yang asserts that perception and action are not simply converged through learning, but also through sociocultural and emotional effects. The reference to "smoke" in the title "The Smoke Around Mirror Neurons: Goals as Sociocultural and Emotional Organizers of Perception and Action in Learning" means that the mirror neuron system does not perfectly reflect the other's behavior as in a mirror, but is rather a "smoky mirror" affected by the surrounding situation and one's feelings.

The idea that learning occurs through the interplay of perception and action (behavior) in the living environment is part of a long tradition in practical pedagogy since Piaget. According to the view of Dr. Noboru Kobayashi, one of the authors of this article, the basic program of the mind, which is genetically determined, is constructed and integrated as it operates in response to perception and action, and a more advanced program of the mind is created in the association area. In this process, mediated by the mirror neuron system, understanding of others' situations is affected and organized by one's own emotions and memories through the limbic system and sociocultural information.

In terms of education, this research indicates that we must consider ways to enhance children's motivation to learn by providing material that challenges their individual abilities and interests. Some examples of such educational tools include Universal Design for Learning and Singer's model of math teaching, and considering that their teaching methods are adapted to each individual student, we can say that they are paths to the same goal.

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