Warren G. Phillips Brain-based teaching strategies
Traditionally, scientists have thought that there were two distinct types of nerve cells (neurons) in the human body: motor neurons and sensory neurons. Motor neurons carry signals from the spinal cord to muscle cells causing them to contract, which produces movement. Sensory neurons are located throughout the body and send sensory information (sight, sound, feeling, etc.) to the brain or spinal cord.
Recently, scientists have learned more about a third kind of neuron, the mirror neuron. A mirror neuron is activated when a person observes an action performed by another person. This neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other person and simulates the action as if the person were performing it himself. In a sense, they are rehearsing the movement so that they would be able to imitate it at a later time. Therefore, they are learning from the other person.
These mirror neurons are still not fully understood, but could help to explain many human behaviors and learning processes. Mirror neurons may be very important in understanding the actions of other people, and for learning skills by imitation. They may also help humans to learn language. In fact, some scientists believe that mirror neurons are responsible for human emotions such as empathy. Many studies are being conducted to see if the mirror neuron system is responsible for cognitive disorders such as autism. There appears to be a relationship between the characteristics of autism and the function of the mirror neuron system. These studies, when completed, could be invaluable to the understanding and educational needs of autistic students.
A Study from Biological Psychiatry (May 2011) found that the mirror system in autistic individuals is not broken, but simply delayed. Dr. Christian Keysers, lead author of the study stated that “While most of us have their strongest mirror activity while they are young, autistic individuals seem to have a weak mirror system in their youth, but their mirror activity increases with age, is normal by about age 30 and unusually high thereafter.” This finding may be due to rehabilitative treatments and also may be useful in conjunction with genetic identification of autism at an early age.
What’s the takeaway for educators? As teachers, this information is useful for classroom applications. Autistic students should need multiple exposures to an activity before they can become proficient. It may be necessary for one-on-one instruction during certain activities. They may not process what teachers have shown them, and therefore, cannot imitate the activity with just one lesson. Also, they may not understand the emotional implications or have a fully social awareness of their classroom environment.