These socially valuable "monkey see, monkey do" neurons with absolutely fascinating properties were recently discovered in the cerebral cortex of monkeys. Giaccamo Rizzollati, of the University of Parma, Italy, found a system of brain cells, now referred to as "mirror cells," in the ventral premotor area of the frontal lobes of the brain. This area is a part of the larger premotor cortex, whose activities are crucial to planning and initiating movements. Immediately anterior to the motor area is the Supplementary Motor Area (SMA) or the premotor cortex, which is somewhat verticla strip of cortical real estate. The premotor cortex is a functional brain landmark separating the motor input (sensory/detecting) and output (motor/performing) systems. All proposed actions are mentally rehearsed in the premotor areas before being overtly executed (as an action) by the motor system.
This cluster of neurons fired a signal when a monkey physically performed a single highly specific action with either of its hand. Whether pushing, pulling, tugging, or grasping an object, or when picking up or putting a peanut in its mouth, for example, the mirror neurons became highly active.
However, the most fascinating characteristic of mirror neurons is that many of those same neurons in the premotor areas also fired when the monkey merely watched another monkey or the experimenter perform the exact same task! During these experiments, it became easy to predict precisely which neurons would fire based on which activity the monkey was observing. Just as interesting, when mechanical tools performed the same task, the mirror neurons remained inactive. However, the mirror neurons fired rapidly the moment the monkeys watched another monkey or a human engaged in a specific action.
While mirror neurons are located in the F5 region of the brain, they are heavily dependent upon vision (visual cortex), hearing (auditory cortex), speaking (multiple language centers in the brain), understanding gestures, and the development of social awareness. Like other functions of the brain, mirror neurons massively interconnected with other brain regions. Mirror neurons offer still one more insight into the neural basis of effective teaching and learning. From appenticeships to active classroom demonstrations, we rely on active mirror neurons to orchestrate a virtual personal experience mimicking the one under observation.