At birth, the nervous system is still not fully developed. The brain only weighs a quarter of the weight it will reach at maturity and will rapidly triple in size within the first two years of life. Although its basic structure is formed, the following processes then occur:
- myelination: the production of a special sheath that covers the nerves and allows nerve impulses to travel even faster;
- the creation of connections (synapses) between the neurons, which increase as the child explores the surrounding environment.
Brain development is therefore the result of the interconnection between the specific genetic heritage of the human species and the relationship between the individual and their family and social context, which includes all the experiences lived by the newborn from the very first moment of life.
The discovery of mirror neurons
There are different types of neurons, in terms of both their shape and the tasks they perform, but all of them “fire” every time they are activated. When an individual perceives an external event or performs an action, neurons fire “electrical” signals which can be tracked through specific instruments.
But let’s go back to the beginning of the story!
Imagine a laboratory room twenty-five years ago, with a team of Italian researchers trying to study the brain activities of a group of chimpanzees.
The researchers suddenly noticed that a set of movement-related neurons was activated in a chimp whose body, however, was perfectly still: the chimp was only watching the researcher picking up a banana, but its brain “fired” exactly as if it was performing the action itself.
The amazing discovery was that certain neurons are activated not only when executing an action but also when observing the same action being performed by someone else. Since this happened with monkeys, they wondered whether it might be reasonable to suppose that the same happens in humans as well (given that we share 98% of our DNA with other primates)!
The researcher’s intuition turned out to be right. After further research they found that these types of neurons are indeed present in humans too, and since they can be activated by an external stimulus, they called them MIRROR NEURONS.
Mirror neurons and child development
This initial discovery, regarded as one of the most important in neuroscience, has been followed up by many studies in the last twenty-five years, and today we know for a fact that mirror neurons are involved in the child’s cognitive, physical and psychological development. They already exist at birth in the form of a rudimentary mechanism, which progressively evolves through the child’s motor experiences from the very first months of life.
Your children will learn to mimic smiles, gestures, words, facial expressions and behaviours from your actions towards them. Everything that involves movement is key for the individual’s growth, particularly during the early stages of development. The more stimulating their environment in terms of relationships, the more they will find themselves immersed in gestures they see and try to reproduce.
This process is then gradually refined until these motions become fluid and complete and are part of their action repertoire.
Mirror neurons are involved precisely in this mechanism: they are the physiological explanation of how the mimicking process works.
When playing with your child, you may have may have seen them playfully sticking out their tongue immediately after you’ve stuck out yours! This behaviour begins to occur when the baby is between 5 and 8 weeks old, and parents usually love it so much that for months afterwards they still enjoy making funny or appealing faces to elicit the child’s reactions. It’s important for you to know that, in that exact moment, a series of mirror neurons are activated in your little ones as well as yourselves which establishes an intimate dialogue between parent and child that is not only visual but also body-to-body.
During the first year of life, we thus witness an ongoing cycle in which the brain’s architecture becomes increasingly sophisticated, neural connections proliferate and, thanks also to their daily experience of mirroring the significant adults in their lives, children learn more and more complex movements, facial expressions and behaviours.
Mirror neurons and emotions
Could the mirror neuron mechanism also be involved in emotions and sensations? When individuals experience an emotion or are in a particular mood, they assume certain postures and facial expressions that reflect those feelings, and at the same time a specific part of their brain structure is also activated (an older, inner part of the human brain).
Empirical evidence from several research fields conducted since the 2000s has confirmed that mirror neurons also exist inside these particular brain structures, and they are activated not only when we feel an emotion personally but also when we observe it in others. This means that if I perceive that the person in front of me is sad, I will very likely be able to feel that same emotion because the same neural circuits responsible for my emotions have likewise been activated.
All this also applies to sensations. When we observe someone being touched, caressed, slapped or injured, this will fire the part of the brain that is normally activated when we ourselves are touched, caressed, slapped or injured. This explains why we are able to understand empathically the person standing before us, putting ourselves in their shoes.
This major discovery gives us an important insight: for a healthy and harmonious development, children need to form a relationship with someone who takes care of them, and not just from birth but for the very first month of pregnancy. So, this need is not just dictated by common sense, it is physiologically determined by our DNA: our neurons need to be mirrored by those of our caregivers.
So you, as parents, can provide an environment filled with suitable experiences for your child right from the start. You can talk to them, tell them stories, listen to music, play, dance and laugh, and you can caress, cradle and observe them. They can mimic you because they are physiologically predisposed to do so: they will recognise your movements and expressions and they will grow with you.