Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Virtue Ethics: An Ethical Development Program for High School Youth

Activity 1: Mirror Neurons

Part of Virtue Ethics

Activity time: 10 minutes

Materials for Activity

  • Optional: Computer with Internet access, and digital projector or large monitor

Preparation for Activity

  • Optional: Preview a six-minute segment on mirror neurons from the PBS program “The Human Spark.” Test equipment and Internet connection before the workshop. Queue the segment to show the group.

Description of Activity

Share the following:

Have you ever seen a competitive ice skater miss a move and fall on the ice? Did you say, “Ouch?” If so, your brain was probably using mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are brain cells that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others, but also their intentions-the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.

Scientist first discovered the work of mirror neurons almost twenty years ago, while monitoring the brain functions of monkeys. They discovered that certain regions of the brain were active when monkeys ate peanuts. Then, much to their surprise, they discovered that the same regions of the brain were active when the monkeys watched a lab assistant eat a peanut. The regions were also active when monkeys simply heard someone open a peanut.

We now know that mirror neurons in humans are even more developed and flexible than in monkeys. This makes sense because human society is extremely dependent on each of us understanding and engaging with not only the actions of other members of society, but also the reasons and emotions behind actions. Mirror neurons help explain how human beings learn, why people enjoy watching certain sports or forms of art, why exposure to violent media may be harmful, and why some people enjoy pornography.

Scientists are still researching how these complex brain cells work. But we know that the same cells in your brain are activated when you kick a ball, when you watch someone else kick a ball, or when you say “kick the ball.” Not only do these cells let you understand that you are watching someone kick a ball, but you also understand that the person wants a good kick. If someone playing kickball gets out and expresses disappointment, you, too, feel the disappointment. Your previous experience with kickball has created a template in your head that you reference every time you play kickball, watch kickball or even hear a story about kickball. How fascinating is that!

If you have Internet access, watch the PBS segment on mirror neurons.

Discuss implications of this research:

  • How do mirror neurons play a part in learning a new behavior? Why did generations of children learn to cook by watching the family cook in the kitchen, even before being able to try cooking themselves?
  • If we learn almost as much by watching and listening to others as we do by doing things ourselves, what role does storytelling play in learning?
  • The implications might be clear for learning physical actions. What are the implications for learning values and virtues, like compassion? Do mirror neurons increase our capacity for compassion?