Mirror Neurons – What Are They and How Do They Work?

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Mirror Neurons – What Are They and How Do They Work?

Mirror neurons refer to a special group of neurons in the brain which fire not only when an individual executes a specific motor movement, but also when they observe one made by someone else (Oztop, Kawato & Arbib, 2013).

A team of Italian researchers first discovered mirror neurons in the 1990’s during an experiment with Macaque Monkeys into brain activity during motor actions (Perry, 2013). When one of the monkeys watched a researcher reach over for his food, the electrodes in the monkey’s brain indicated the same pattern of neural behaviour in the brain as when the monkey itself went to reach for food – despite the monkey not having made any movement during this incident.




Since this discovery, over 800 research papers on mirror neurons have been published, which have been hugely influential in understanding neuropsychology, in particular social cognition – we understand and empathise with others’ feelings not by thinking about how we should feel, but by actually feeling them ourselves (Kilner & Lemon, 2013). This enables us how to perform actions without necessarily having to perform them.

Understanding how mirror neurons work – and their implications on behaviour, have interesting potential applications in the realm of marketing. For instance, an in-store advertisement of someone drinking an ice cold beverage will activate the same neurons in the observing consumer’s brain, prompting them to want to drink – hence encouraging them to buy a beverage.

For example…

Which picture do you find more engaging?


Using images that illustrate a product actually being consumed can greatly enhance the impact of your visual communication… but only when used correctly.


Kilner, J. & Lemon, R. (2013). What we know currently about Mirror Neurons. Current Biology. 23(23), R1057-R1062.

Oztop, E., Kawato, M. & Arbib, M. (2013). Mirror Neurons: Functions, mechanisms and models. Neuroscience Letters. 540(12), 43–55.

Perry, S. (2013). Mirror Neurons. Society for Neuroscience. http://www.brainfacts.org/brain-basics/neuroanatomy/articles/2008/mirror-neurons/

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