Tag Archives: autism

Mirror neurons: The most powerful learning tool

Mirror neurons. Imitation has always been a powerful learning tool. The human brain is enabled with different mechanisms that allow us to imitate actions. Babies are capable of reproducing facial expressions, and as adults, we imitate basic behavior. Laughter can be spread, we can cry while watching a sad movie… It seems like we have the capacity to feel what others feel, empathize with them and understand their feelings. What happens in the brain for this to happen? The answer is mirror neurons. In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about mirror neurons. What are they? How do they intervene in education and empathy? Why is emotion contagious? 

What are Mirror Neurons? Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

What are Mirror Neurons?

In humans and primate species there are neurons called Mirror Neurons. These brain cells activate when we see someone doing something. For example, when a chimpanzee sees its mother opening a nut with a rock and then tries to imitate her with another nut. Mirror neurons are related with empathic, social and imitations behavior. They are a fundamental tool for learning.

“We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.”- G.Rizzolatti.

In the 90’s a group of neuroscientists, directed by Giacomo Rizzolatti from the University of Parma (Italy), discovered something surprising. A hundred group of neurons in the brain in primates were activated not only when the monkey was doing something but also when the monkey saw another one doing that same action.

Mirror neurons can be defined as a group of neurons that activate when we perform an action or when we see an action being performed. 

Mirror neurons are essential for imitation which is key in the learning process. From birth these group of neurons are active and it allows us to learn to eat, dress, speak… Mirror neurons are also important in planning our actions as well as understanding intentions behind actions.

In the next video, Ramachandran a neuroscientist, explains what are mirror neurons and why they are important.

Mirror Neurons and Education

Mirror neurons allow us to learn through imitation. They enable us to reflect body language, facial expressions, and emotions. Mirror neurons play an essential part in our social life. They are key for the child development, as well as relationships and education.

Humans are social beings programmed to learn from others. We all reach our goals working as a group than individually. Seeing a parent, professor or student show a cognitive skill or any other skill, gives us a tangible experience rather than learning from explanation.

How do mirror neurons intervene in our daily lives?

  • Mirror neurons are responsible for yawning when we see someone else yawn.
  • These neurons also act when we see someone sad or crying and in turn feel sad.
  • The same thing happens with smiling or laughing. The way laughter can be contagious.
  • Studies suggest that there is an activation of the anterior insula when we see someone expressing disgust.
  • Another study shows that the somatosensory cortex is activated when we see someone touching another person the same way it activates when we are the ones being touched.

8 tips: How do mirror neurons influence education?

Thanks to mirror neurons the emotions we portray have a direct influence on others. This is why teachers have to make the effort to control their emotions, avoid teacher burnout, in order to use mirror neurons as an asset.

  1. Show happiness and optimism and that way you will transmit that to your students and children.
  2. Control and avoid negative emotions. We all have bad days but teachers have to be sure this doesn’t reflect on the children. However, the tricky part is that this doesn’t mean children should repress these emotions. As a teacher be sure to detect what emotion the child is feeling and help them learn to identify and manage them accordingly.
  3. Use visual signs and imitation any chance you get. Make examples practical with physical demonstrations so that children can imitate you.
  4. Encourage group interactions. This will maximize the use of mirror neurons and therefore the child’s social relationships and empathy.
  5. Use imitation in any activity that you want the children to learn (washing teeth, cleaning up after themselves…)
  6. Run from violence. Children learn what they see. If a child is educated in a hostile environment, his mirror neurons will activate and he might repeat these violent behaviors.
  7. Teach children the importance of how we listen, particularly body language. That way when someone has to share something or needs help the mirror neurons will activate and empathy will be reinforced.
  8. Teach children about emotional intelligence so that they can be able to identify their own and other people’s emotions.

Mirror Neurons and Emotional Contagion

Do you feel happy when people around you are happy? Do you get sad or depressed around negative and pessimistic people? This is due to the emotional contagion produced by the mirror neurons.

Emotional Contagion is a process through which a person or group influence the emotions and emotional behavior of another person or group. This can be done through emotional induction conscious or unconscious.

When people communicate they have the tendency to imitate gestures and facial expressions and in many cases feel what others are feeling. It has been proven the high impact emotional contagion has in our personal and work relationships. We are still not conscious of the influential ability we have in other people’s emotional state and in turn other people on our own emotional state.

Mirror neurons allow us to literally feel what others are feeling and “live” their emotions. Mirror neurons are based on empathy.

Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

This is proof that we are social beings. Empathy has been essential to our species survival and shows how without attachments and protection we wouldn’t have survived.

How can we take advantage of emotional contagion?

The fact that we can interconnect to each other and understand each other’s feelings can work to our advantage.

  • Happiness is more contagious than sadness, so try to surround yourself with happy people. However, don’t avoid people who are sad, we all need support sometimes and giving them love might help them recover faster.
  • Imitate happy and positive people, do what they do. Practice sports and smile more (even if you don’t feel like it, you will later feel better). Keep a healthy self-esteem and stop thinking negatively.
  • Think before acting or saying anything, especially if its negative. Try to say it politely, educated and as calmly as possible since your emotional state can be contagious.

Check out how laughter can be contagious with this video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM45JMTpkBU

Mirror Neurons and Culture

Does culture influence our brain? The answer seems to be yes. According to an investigation from the University of California, mirror neurons respond differently if the person in front of us shares our same culture or not.

Researchers used two actors, one American and another Nicaraguan to show a group of American participants a series of gestures (some American, others Nicaraguan and others without cultural meaning).

With Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) they investigated mirror neuron activities. They found that participants showed more activity when they saw the American do the gestures in comparison to the Nicaraguan. When the Nicaraguan showed American gestures to the group, the mirror neurons decreased their activity drastically.

It’s possible to conclude that mirror neurons are influenced by culture and in turn have an influence on our behavior. The results from this study show us that we are more prepared to understand and empathize with members of our own culture and ethnicity than those who are not. This also explains why we connect faster and easier with members of our own culture.

Mirror Neurons, empathy, and psychopathy

Psychopathy is a personality disorder distinguished by a superficial charm, pathological lies, and low empathy.

It’s common for psychopaths to lead a criminal life, however, not all become, serial killers or murderers. Some can actually lead a normal life.

If these psychopaths are not capable of empathizing, does that mean their mirror neurons are not working? A recent study answered this question.

Researchers observed the brain activity of two groups (18 psychopaths and 26 healthy people) while they watched short videos. The videos showed images of hands touching, gently, painfully, socially, rejecting each other and neutrally. They were instructed to watch the video and then to try to feel what the people were feeling. The next part of the study the participants were hit with a ruler to register their pain area in the brain.

Scientists found that only when psychopaths were asked to feel something did they actually feel something, mirror neurons even activated the same way as in the other group. However, when no instruction was given, the psychopath’s group showed less activation of the mirror neurons and pain receptors of the brain.

It’s not that psychopaths don’t have empathy, it’s that it’s a switch that can be activated and deactivated, and by default, it is always deactivated.

Mirror Neurons and Autism

Symptoms of autism include a delay in language and strained emotional recognition. They are not capable of perceiving different emotions, including their own.

Scientists, therefore, studied the mirror neurons in people with autism to check if they were “broken”. They found that the system has a developmental delay, where the activity is slower, weaker and less activated than in others. Nonetheless, the activity increases with age and by age 30 it becomes normal and then unusually elevated.

Other studies have discovered that not all people with autism have a delay in these neurons. They can be activated normally by familiar faces.

Hope you found this article interesting. Please leave a comment below!

References

Molnar-Szakacs, I., Wu, A. D., Robles, F. J., & Iacoboni, M. (2007). Do you see what I mean? Corticospinal excitability during observation of culture-specific gestures. PLoS One, 2(7), e626.

Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., den Boer, J. A., Bartels, A. A., & Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 136(8), 2550-2562.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

Sensory Processing Disorder: What is it? What are the symptoms, treatments and does my child exhibit any signs? Take the mini quiz!

“Sometimes the noise in my life bothers me. It hurts my ears.” These are common things people with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Sensory Integration Disorder tend to say when describing what is happening to them. Find out more about what is sensory processing disorder, its signs, symptoms, treatments and take a mini quiz on different signs of over responsive sensory processing disorder.

Sensory processing disorder

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder or sensory integration disorder is a condition in which the brain has difficulty receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Some experts like A. Jean Ayres, PhD, linked SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents the brain from receiving signals or information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. Whether if you are biting into your favorite New York style pizza, driving a car, or simply texting, the completion of the activity requires precise processing of sensation and attention.

Sensory processing disorder may affect one or more of the senses like hearing, touch (tactile), smell or taste, movement (vestibular) and body awareness (proprioceptive sense). Some children may even seem unresponsive to the things they have difficulties with. For example, the sounds of a lawn mower may cause a child to experience headaches, then nausea, dizziness, confusion, trembling or panic. They may scream when touched or shy away from certain textures of foods. However, others may also seem unresponsive to anything around them. They may fail to respond to extreme heat, cold or even pain. This is very common among children with autism.

Sensory Processing Disorder- Symptoms 

Symptoms may range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include:

  • Hypersensitivity: Hypersensitive (or oversensitive) children may notice sounds that others do not, or have an extreme response to loud noises. They may be fearful of large crowds, unwilling to play on playground equipment or worried about their safety (falling).
  • Hypo-sensitive: Hypo-sensitive (or under sensitive) children, as mentioned above, may lack sensitivity to their surroundings. For example, because they might have a high tolerance for pain, they are known to be “sensory seeking” meaning they have a constant need to touch people or things, even when it’s not appropriate. Some may be gustatory/oral seeking (crave certain textures and flavors excessively), olfactory seeking (crave certain smells excessively), auditory seeking (often speak louder than necessary), and visual seeking (crave bright lights). 

Often, children with sensory processing disorder show signs of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. They may reach in one of both ways:

  • Extreme response to change in environment: Kids may be fine in settings they are familiar with, however, in crowded environments like a wedding, they may experience a sensory meltdown such as throwing a tantrum and screaming.
  • Fleeing from stimulation: children who are undersensitive might get a fight or flight response from something that is too stimulating. For example, if a child flees from a playground or parking lot, oblivious to the danger, this indicates they may be heading away from something upsetting.

Sensory Processing Disorder-Skills Affected

  • Resistance to change and inattention: they may be struggling with adapting to change and new surroundings. Some cognitive skills might be affected by this.
  • Problems with motor skills: the child may seem awkward and clumsy, an activity such as running or jumping may be hard for kids who may have difficulty knowing the orientation of their body. They may either move slowly or avoid activities they find challenging.
  • Lack social skills: oversensitive kids will most likely get anxious around other children and will avoid playing, making it hard for the child to be socially friendly. Under sensitive kids also lack social skills because they may be too rough which in turn may lead other kids to avoid them and exclude them from activities.

Sensory Processing Disorder-Diagnosis and Causes

There have been many assumptions and speculations about the causes of sensory processing disorder or sensory integration disorder; nothing concrete has been identified just yet. However, many researchers say some causes of SPD could be:

  • Coded into the child’s genetic material
  • Prenatal and birth complications (low birth weight or prematurity, etc.)
  • Environmental factors (an adopted child who was might have had poor prenatal care)

Sensory processing disorder has yet to be classified as an illness in the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), which is often used by psychiatrists and many other clinical professionals such as pediatricians and psychologists in diagnosis. However, it is identified as part of the assessment in the Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood-Revised in the first clinical axis. Sensory processing disorder was first identified by occupational therapists as a source of distress for many children and for inexplicable behaviors. Sensory integration disorder can be often misdiagnosed due to its confusion with autistic children and their problematic sensory responses.

Below is a small quiz with common situations that may happen when a child has a over-response to sensory stimuli and may have sensory processing disorder.

1. We have to avoid public loud spaces such as malls, parks, etc. because the noise seems to hurt my child's ears.
  • A red X indicates that your child may have this symptom of sensory processing disorder. A green checkmark indicates that your child does not have this symptom

2. My child doesn't like to be hugged or kissed and when I do it seems like it hurts (not to be confused with shyness or social difficulties)
  • A red X indicates that your child may have this symptom of sensory processing disorder. A green checkmark indicates that your child does not have this symptom

3. My child has a hard time falling asleep and wakes up crying to any noise, change in temperature or minimal stimuli with high level of discomfort and it's difficult to comfort him back to sleep
  • A red X indicates that your child may have this symptom of sensory processing disorder. A green checkmark indicates that your child does not have this symptom

4. When we buy clothes we have to take all of the tags off because my child can't stand the touch on his skin (not to be confused with normal discomfort).
  • A red X indicates that your child may have this symptom of sensory processing disorder. A green checkmark indicates that your child does not have this symptom

5. Sounds, lights, movements, smells, tastes and any other sense seems to be heightened to the point where my child feels great discomfort or even pain while being exposed to these stimuli
  • A red X indicates that your child may have this symptom of sensory processing disorder. A green checkmark indicates that your child does not have this symptom

*IMPORTANT: While this mini quiz can’t diagnose a child with sensory integration disorder, it can be a helpful guide to see if additional testing should be done. 

Sensory processing disorder symptoms

Sensory Processing Disorder-Treatment

For diagnosis and treatment, it’s generally recommended to see an occupational therapist. The therapeutic approach for occupational therapy, in this case, includes the use of sensory integration, which was originally created by A. Jean Ayres, PhD, and is formally known as Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI).

An occupational therapy session using the Ayres Sensory Integration system begins with an evaluation, and once it’s complete, the therapist will develop a plan aimed at enhancing the child’s ability to utilize their sensations. When the occupational therapist is using ASI intervention techniques, some core elements include:

  • An ASI intervention will challenge the child to develop ideas about what to do, allow the child to plan out these ideas and then successfully carry out the plans
  • The environment is rich in tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular opportunities and that creates both physical and emotional safety for the child
  • Many therapeutic activities will promote postural control and balance, which may include the use of special equipment such as suspended apparatus, scooters, and balls.

Sensory processing disorder- treatment

Tips and Creative Forms of Therapy

There are also many creative ways to help your child manage SPD in their daily life. The Ayres Sensory Integration system has created something called “Sensory Diet”, which refers to an individualized set of sensory based activities in which the child will participate throughout the day. Think of a “sensory diet” in the same way that healthy eating habits are distinguished by feeding our bodies the nutrients we need; a sensory diet “feeds” the child the right sensory needs of the child. A sensory diet allows the child to re-train the brain to process sensory information, which will then promote self-control. An example of a sensory diet would be:

  • A child who is an avoider and under-sensitive may be overwhelmed by loud sounds and stressful stimuli. In this case, the child would need breaks from distressing sounds, unpleasant tactile stimulation, etc.
  • A child who is not as aware of their body would need to incorporate lifting, pushing and pulling heaving objects as an activity into their everyday life. These activities will help the child gain an understanding of their body.
  • For children who have tactile issues, it is sometimes recommended to have the child drink seltzer water to experience bubbles in their mouth.

Overall, there are many forms of sensory diets that are individualized based on the child’s needs. You can create a sensory diet by working alongside your occupational therapist that will provide the correct form of activities to help the child.

Now that you know how to identify Sensory Processing Disorder and how to treat it, I hope you find this article useful and can become more aware of your child’s behavior. Feel free to leave a message below.

 

References:

Impact and Treatment of SPD. Retrieved from https://www.spdstar.org/basic/impact-and-treatment-of-spd

Understanding Sensory Processing Issues. Retrieved from  https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/understanding-sensory-processing-issues#item2

Dr. A. Jean Ayres, PhD. (1972). Ayres Sensory Integration. Retrieved from https://www.siglobalnetwork.org/ayres-sensory-integration