Ballerinas dance with bar in a mirror

Mirror, mirror

The discovery of mirror systems has helped us understand the planning and imagining of actions

When we move to strike a tennis ball, our actions are guided by the brain’s motor control systems.

Recently, it has become clear that these same systems are also active when we imagine making an action in our head (reliving a perfect cross-court volley, for example). And, remarkably, they also light up when we watch someone performing an action.

The key difference is that the levels of activity are lower than when we actually perform the action – so muscular contraction is not actually triggered. Because the systems reflect the ‘real’ activity, they are known as mirror systems.

The system is extraordinarily specific. Mirror systems fire when someone sees a person making an arm movement, for example, but not when they see a robotic arm move. It is possible that this activity allows us to put ourselves in others’ positions, experiencing (but to a lesser degree) what they are experiencing. They may therefore help us to infer the intentions of others.

Lead image:

Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Cell biology, Neuroscience, Physiology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development