Harnessing an Awareness of Mirror Neurons
for English Language Teachers

Sep 24th, 2016 | By | Category: In the Classroom
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author image of Patrick T. Randolph

Patrick T. Randolph


—I. Introduction

Have you ever watched a romantic scene in a film, perhaps one in which a couple is holding hands on a beach, and felt your heart swell with genuine love and deep emotion? Have you asked yourself why it is that you cry or at least tear up when listening to a friend tell a story of a loved one who has passed on? Or what about sports? Why is it when watching your favorite football team knock on the door of the opponent’s goal line that your heart rate increases and you find yourself mirroring one of the players on your favorite team? Perhaps you empathize with his failure or celebrate his success. Why do we react so profoundly to others’ actions, emotions, or words? Why do we react the way we do to others simply by observing them? And why, as English language teachers, do we need to be aware of our own thoughts, actions, and expressions in the classroom? The answer to these questions, according to more than 20 years of research done in Giacomo Rizzolatti’s lab, is what the neuroscience community has come to know as mirror neurons.

To help teachers maximize an awareness of these brain cells and put them to use, I will first discuss the discovery of these special neurons and explain their functions. Next, I will offer how we can teach more effectively by harnessing an understanding of mirror neurons as they relate to six specific teaching elements.

II. The History of Mirror Neurons and Their Functions

two faces with arrows for mirror neurons

Source: www.pixabay.com

In the late 1980s, researchers in Giacomo Rizzolatti’s lab in Parma, Italy, came across intriguing discoveries, events that V. S. Ramachandran would later define as the “single most important unpublicized stories of the decade” (as cited in Winerman, 2005, p. 48). In Rizzolatti’s lab, his researchers were looking at the premotor cortex in macaque monkeys. They were specifically interested in area F5 of the premotor cortex. This particular area is significant because it is the same region as Broca’s area in the human brain, which has been identified as a key functioning area for language production.

At one point during the day’s research, a monkey was simply sitting in her chair and not performing any physical activities; she was merely watching a researcher in the lab. However, when the researcher reached for things, there was immediate activity in the monkey’s F5 region, detected by the electrodes that were implanted in her brain and hooked up to the computer screen. Certain neurons in the F5 region were firing at the mere perception of the researcher’s actions. The colleagues in Rizzolatti’s lab were amazed, for it meant that particular neurons fire when a monkey observes another’s actions—these cells would later be called mirror neurons.

Since the discovery in macaque monkeys, mirror neurons have also been found in humans (Arbib, 2002; Iacoboni, 2009). These unique neurons fire when someone is physically performing an action as well as when he is simply watching someone do something; with regard to the latter, it is as if the brain of the observer were performing the action. “The simple fact that a subset of the cells in our brains—the mirror neurons—fire when an individual kicks a soccer ball, sees a ball being kicked, hears a ball being kicked, and even just says or hears the word ‘kick’ leads to amazing consequences and new understandings” (Iacoboni, 2009, pp. 11-12).

In short, we can define a mirror neuron as a brain cell that fires when a person physically does an action or when one watches another perform an action.¹ Understanding these neurons helps answer the question presented in the introduction—why do we react the way we do to others simply by observing them?

Mirror neurons have also helped to answer questions and revise our understanding of learning and perception. Up until the discovery of mirror neurons, both psychologists and neuroscientists believed that action, perception, and cognition functioned in distinct parts of the brain and were not necessarily related to each other (Iacoboni, 2009). Now, however, we know that, thanks to these neuromiracles, action, perception, and cognition act as “a unified process” (Iacoboni, 2009, p. 17). We can perform an action, watch it being performed, and think about it all because of the mirror neuron system.

The question of interest now arises: What do mirror neurons have to do with the English language classroom? The answer: Everything! What we, as teachers, do in the classroom is being simulated in our students’ brains. We literally need to be aware of each moment we are teaching, because our words and actions are being mirrored in real time via a very intricate system of neurons. While this might be a daunting thought, it is also a very powerful one, knowing that we can both inspire and help our English language learners (ELLs) by harnessing an awareness of mirror neurons. Based on what we now know about these selective cells, let us look at six factors that will promote both advanced teaching and learning.

III. Six Teaching Points Influenced by Mirror Neurons

two faces with stars for mirror neurons

Source: www.pixabay.com

1. Being a Role Model

Walt Whitman’s insightful claim, “In all people I see myself” (1855/1986, p. 43), can now be considered a brain fact according to the world of mirror neurons. And now, instructors across the globe can claim, “In all my students’ brains, I am being mirrored every moment in class.” In Eric Jensen’s research, he has noted that “[t]eachers who smile, use humor, have a joyful demeanor, and take genuine pleasure in their work generally have high-performing learners” (2008, p. 98). It is important, then, to be a positive role model both in and outside the classroom in order to inspire our students to learn and ignite their curiosity.

Educators, of all kinds, should be aware that their students’ mirror neuron systems are potentially observing and simulating literally every visible action, emotional expression, and type of behavior. So, we need to realize our physical and spiritual presence has very significant consequences in the short- and long-term success of our students. If you are an educator, carry books to show you read, write in class along with your students, be curious by asking questions about the content of the class—show them what you want them to be.

2. Being Aware of Attitude and Self

Teachers are human beings—we have our good and bad days. It is, however, extremely important to leave personal issues at the door and enter the classroom with a positive and encouraging attitude. If our students are mirroring our behavior, then we need to use that to our advantage by creating a healthy, positive, and productive learning environment. This means we need to be aware of such things as our facial expressions, tone of voice, our moods, and how we respond to our students’ questions (Randolph, 2014). Not only will this help our students, but it will also help us develop our “instructor-consciousness” (Randolph, 2013, p. 4) and how to conduct ourselves in the classroom. This kind of awareness, I think, can help teachers hone their craft and teach at a whole new and fulfilling level.

3. Nurturing a Healthy Teacher-Student Rapport

Vittorio Gallese, one of Rizzolatti’s colleagues, says of mirror neurons, “It seems we’re wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different. At the root, as humans we identify the person we’re facing as someone like ourselves” (as cited in Winerman, 2005, p. 50). It would seem, then, that developing a teacher-student rapport is a fundamentally natural consequence of the classroom, and our students’ mirror neuron systems help in nurturing this process. Moreover, developing a good rapport with students will benefit the whole classroom environment in a number of positive ways. According to La France (1982), the more rapport that a student has with his or her teacher, the more mirroring that takes place; a beneficial consequence of this is that students who mirror instructors in positive ways are ultimately more involved in the class and the learning process. In addition, the more rapport and trust that develop, the more oxytocin is produced in the learners’ brains (McPherron & Randolph, 2014). The hormone oxytocin is released as a result of a healthy classroom based on factors such as happiness, trust, and a nurturing environment. This helps in developing a productive bond between the teacher and his or her students.

4. Demonstrating and Modeling Activities
two faces with rainbows for mirror neurons

Source: www.pixabay.com

Any ELL teacher-trainer program or book on teaching the English language will emphasize the importance of demonstrating or modeling activities to help students acquire the needed language skills. Knowing now what we do about the world of mirror neurons, we can certainly understand why modeling an activity or assignment is an imperative part of teaching and learning. Not only will students understand the process better if it is done in front of them, but their own mirror neurons will be helping to simulate the actions in their neural network. There is, then, a visual experience of seeing and a mirror neuron–mirroring experience of simulating when we take the time to model activities and homework. The action-perception-cognition trinity that I discussed above is in play during these moments.

5. Using Gestures to Illustrate Thoughts in Motion

For centuries, anthropologists and philosophers (McNeill, 1995) and now neuroscientists (Arbib, 2002) have claimed that the origin of human language was based on gestures. And if large quantities of mirror neurons are located in various language centers in the brain, Broca’s area being one of them, then this does indeed make sense. Moreover, according to Iacoboni (2009), gestures nurture the learning process in profound ways. In a number of classroom studies, students performed better when explanations were given while simultaneous gestures reinforced the speech. It seems that “gestures accompanying speech have a dual role of helping the speakers to express their thoughts and helping the listeners/viewers understand what is being said” (Iacoboni, 2009, p. 81). And, as McNeill (1992) has pointed out, “[g]estures exhibit images that cannot always be expressed in speech …” (p. 11).

Gestures essentially provide a multisensory experience for learners, for mirror neurons fire when one does an action, observes an action, hears sounds related to the action, and hears mere words related to the action. As a teaching and learning device, gestures are a key component.  One important factor to remember, however, is to use only gestures that match the verbal meaning; mismatched gestures will only cause confusion and inhibit learning. In fact, mismatched gestures, according to Iacoboni (2009), are worse than giving no gestures while explaining various concepts in class.

6. Using Personal Examples That Elicit Student-Backgrounds

Being aware of another particular kind of mirror neuron will add credence for the need to use personal examples in the ELL classroom, especially when teaching vocabulary. One very specific type of mirror neuron is called the  “word-elicited mirror neuron” (Randolph, 2013). These mirror neurons help with the acquisition of vocabulary, as they fire in response to the world of words. That is, word-elicited mirror neurons respond when we say words, hear words, read words, and write words.

Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, a former graduate student of Iacoboni, did an experiment in which she asked her subjects to read sentences about “hand and mouth actions” and later she asked the same subjects to watch videos of similar actions. The result was that the mirror neuron areas were activated when they both read the sentences and watched the videos. “It is as if mirror neurons help us understand what we read by internally simulating the action we just read in the sentence” (Iacoboni, 2009, p. 94).

If students’ mirror neuron systems are as sensitive to the sound of words as the research suggests they are, then when we teach vocabulary, it is best to use the students’ names, personal history, or culture when giving examples of the lexical items. I make this claim for a number of reasons. First, they will respond in a very personal way to the terms being taught, because they will easily associate their personal history with the lexical items in question. This will help bring certain abstract lexical items down to a more concrete, understandable level. Second, in using these examples with a familiar content, students will simulate them at a higher rate in their minds. And third, if the rapport in the class is developed, as I mentioned above, then the students in class will be reacting positively to both the content of the examples and the way they are said or expressed by the instructor. The experience will be a multisensory one and help reinforce the learning through multiple channels. That is, the mirror neuron system will respond to the sound of the words, the sight of the words, and the instructor’s tone of the words while the brain simultaneously simulates the ideas of the words.

Again, one will note that the aforementioned action-perception-cognition trinity is always at work. Suffice it to say, these mirror neurons are a necessary and complex world within themselves. And for our ELLs, these cells are responsible for the vast majority of the personally motivated learning needed to acquire language skills and also to understand how individuals act within the culture of a language; that is, for example, how physically close people get while speaking to each other when conversing in public or the kind of gestures and facial expressions that are most common in conveying certain concepts.

IV. Concluding Remarks

face with screens for mirror neurons

Source: www.pixabay.com

My hope in discussing mirror neurons is to help make English language teachers aware of how important these kinds of brain cells are for enhancing their craft of teaching and for helping to elevate the learning process of their students. Since the discovery of mirror neurons in Parma, Italy, a growing body of research has developed and continues to expand the understanding of how these neurons affect the way we empathize with others, learn from others, and live in a way that helps us feel the common bond of who and what we are. If mirror neurons can teach us all to continue to become better students, teachers, and fellow human beings, then they are indeed beautiful mirrors in which to peer and see how we are connected to each other on infinite levels.

This article is dedicated to the memory of my father, Gerald Richard Randolph (1931-2016). He was my close mentor, very dear friend, and unique soulmate.

Correspondence concerning this article can be addressed to patricktrandolph@yahoo.com.

Patrick T. Randolph was awarded the “Best of the TESOL Affiliates” for his presentation on vocabulary pedagogy. He teaches in PIESL at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and specializes in vocabulary acquisition, creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. He has created a number of brain-based learning activities for the language skills that he teaches, and he continues to research current topics in neuroscience, especially studies related to exercise and learning, memory, and mirror neurons. Randolph has also been involved as a volunteer with brain-imaging experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and Joseph Ruppert are now working on a creative writing book for TESOL Press’s New Ways Series. The tentative title is New Ways in Teaching Creative Writing for the ELL Community. He lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Lincoln, NE.


¹For an in-depth and detailed survey of the five distinct kinds of mirror neurons, please see pages 45-48 in chapter 3 of McPherron and Randolph’s Cat Got Your Tongue?


Arbib, M. A. (2002). The mirror system, imitation, and evolution of language. In K. Dautenhahn & C. Nehaniv (Eds.), Imitation in animals and artifacts (pp. 229-280). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Iacoboni, M. (2009). Mirroring people: The science of empathy and how we connect with others. New York, NY: Picador.

Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning: The new paradigm of teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

La France, M. (1982). Posturing, mirroring and rapport. In M. Davis (Ed.), Intention rhythms: Periodicity in communicative behavior (pp. 279-298). New York, NY: Human Sciences Press.

McNeill, D. (1995). Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

McPherron, P., & Randolph, P. T. (2014). Cat got your tongue?: Recent research and classroom practices for teaching idioms to English learners around the world. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

Randolph, P. T. (2013). Mirror neurons in the ESL classroom: The power of imitation, attitude, and gestures in learning. The ITBE Link, 41(1), 4-9.

Randolph, P. T.  (2014). Employing the Five-E System of teaching and learning. The CATESOL NEWS, (46)2.

Whitman, W. (1986). Leaves of grass. New York, NY: Penguin Books. (Original work published in 1855)

Winerman, L. (2005). The mind’s mirror. American Psychological Association, 36(9), 48-50.


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