Mirror Neurons Help Us Identify Emotion in Faces

Madeleine L. Werhane won an APSSC Student Research Award for her work examining mirror neurons’ role in the identification of facial emotions. She received the award in May 2012 at the 24th APS Annual Convention.

Mirror neurons are unique in that they engage not only when we perform specific actions, but also when we see others performing specific actions. The same neurons that control hand and mouth actions in monkeys, for instance, are activated when one monkey sees another monkey pick up a piece of food.

Mirror neurons allow humans to learn through observation and communication.

Werhane, who is a student at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, used EEG to study brain activity during an emotion-processing task and an identity-processing task. She determined that “mirror neuron activity was greater when participants processed face emotion compared with face identity, suggesting that mirror neurons may be an important part of the human facial expression recognition system.” Werhane’s coauthors on her award-winning study were Marcus P. Chen and David R. Andrensen, both of the University of Puget Sound.


Mirror neurons are representations of meaningful explanations.

When you experience pain, mirror neurons are created so that you can explain the details of the problem to someone who cares.

Similarly, when you see someone else experience pain, mirror neurons are created so that you can explain the details of the problem (on their behalf) to someone who cares.

When you are learning how to play football (for example), mirror neurons are created inside your brain (through observation).

Kicking a football, when required, is a meaningful explanation (body language). That is, mirror neurons fire when you “explain” kicking the ball. Mirror neurons / explanations are reusable – which makes life easier.

If this explanation doesn’t excite you, you’re hard to please. It is brought to you by virtue of direct experience of a language problem. Direct/subjective experience is important. Don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

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