Mirroring & Simulation
Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys and are defined as neurons that are active both when an individual performs an action and when that individual observes another individual performing the same action. In monkeys, mirror neurons have been identified in parietal and frontal brain regions and are said to form a 'mirror system' which also has connectivity with sensory cortices and other areas of the brain.
The similar firing pattern of mirror neurons during execution and observation of action (and incidentally touch) has been suggested to provide a scaffold upon which interpersonal understanding is built. The idea is that, if my motor/somatosensory system is active when I watch you pouring milk, then I am in some senses undergoing your experience of pouring milk, albeit without producing the overt action. Such vicarious experience allows me to gain an understanding of your mental state in near real time, potentially without the need for inferential processing. Many believe that such a direct mechanism for experiencing something similar to another person also underlies empathy.
Despite the intuitive appeal of these ideas about the potential functions of the mirror system, they remain ideas and are not facts. Much more research is required to ascertain whether a mirror system in humans provides the foundation upon which social understanding is built.
Our work - the causes and consequences of mirroring & simulation
Whether or not caused by a human equivalent of the monkey mirror system, one thing we do know with a relatively high degree of certainty is that observation of others' actions and sensory experiences like touch, is often accompanied by activity in brain regions that would underlie our own experience of the same actions or touch. This similarity of activity is referred by various terms including "mirroring", "simulation" and "resonance". In our lab, rather than focussing on the mirror system per se, we study whether and how this overlapping brain activity during observation and experience is involved in various social functions including social mimicry, automatic and controlled imitation, memory for observed actions and objects, and the decoding of facial and bodily expressions of emotion.
Another central question in our research pertains to understanding the mechanisms that control mirroring activity so that in some cases it results in overt action ('mimicry' or 'imitation'), whereas in others it does not. Lastly, we explore various situational, personal and sociocultural factors that might modulate mirroring and therefore impact the effectiveness of social function in certain situations.