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NOVA scienceNOW: Mirror Neurons

Viewing Ideas


Before Watching

  1. The brain has many regions that perform different functions. Have students use a map of the brain and brain stem to locate these regions: frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, temporal lobe, cerebellum, and brain stem. They can use a brain function map to determine the regions that control movement, touch, hearing, vision, and breathing. Students might also try the interactive activity on the Science Odyssey Web site (at www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/brain/) that allows them to map brain motor functions. Have students also research and describe the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.

  2. What is a neuron? (In simple terms, a neuron is a nerve cell. See Links & Books for more information.) Have students research and sketch a neuron. They should include in their sketch the cell soma (main body of the cell) with attached dendrites and a singular branching axon that forms presynaptic terminals on other neurons. Have students use arrows to show the direction that impulses travel along nerve cells. Ask them to also research and include how many neurons make up the average adult human brain.

    The really amazing part is how one neuron communicates with another. Two neurons don't quite touch; they are separated by a synaptic gap. To take the activity further, have students research the synaptic gap and how a nerve impulse is transmitted across this gap.

  3. Help students become more aware of nonverbal interactions. Ask students to observe the facial expressions of their peers and adults as they interact with them. Have them record in a log a summary of each discussion and the corresponding facial expression. (For example, while sharing an event that hurt their feelings, their peer might look sad or angry.) Ask students not to record sensitive information. Have students share their log and experiences. What patterns do they see?

After Watching

  1. Babies often imitate adult facial expressions. Ask students how mirror neurons might be involved in this. Have them speculate about what babies learn by mimicking caregivers. Ask them to consider how mirroring may be important to development and survival. What might be the evolutionary survival advantages to having a nervous system response that allows one to experience what others experience? (Mirroring may help humans connect with and learn quickly from each other. Some scientists think that this may have increased humans' survival skills and chances of survival.)

  2. The reactions and emotions of sports fans were used to illustrate the function of mirror neurons. Have students explore this phenomenon further. Have students select three or four pictures from newspapers or magazines of people displaying the following emotions: anger, grief or sadness, joy, and surprise. Ask them to mount each picture on paper and label them a, b, c, and d, respectively. Pair students and have partners show the pictures to each other. They should ask the following questions: How does the picture make you feel? What emotion do you see? As a class, discuss students' experiences.

    Some students may find that they had different reactions than their partners. Do we all have the same emotional reaction to the same stimuli? Test it out. Have students survey at least five children and adults and record their responses to the questions above. Also have them ask each person they survey: What might have happened in the picture to trigger that facial expression or emotion? Summarize students' results on the board. Are there any patterns? Did people tend to experience similar emotions when viewing the same picture? Were there differences between child and adult responses to the same pictures? Ask students to share survey stories about what may have triggered the emotions displayed in the pictures. What generalizations can they make about the responses?

  3. Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder related to autism that impairs language and communication skills. Autism is very complex and has many symptoms. People with autism may be very intelligent but have difficulty with social interactions. Dr. Ramachandran thinks there may be a connection between mirror neurons and autism. Have students explore the behaviors and challenges faced by people with this syndrome. Have them research the symptoms, causes, and treatments for Asperger syndrome. What life experiences might be more difficult for people with Asperger syndrome? What experiences are the same for people with and without Asperger syndrome?

  4. Ask students to critically evaluate the concept of mirror neurons. Are students convinced, or not convinced, by the evidence presented that there are distinct neurons in the brain that mediate the behavioral phenomenon referred to as mirroring? What evidence is compelling? What additional questions need to be answered?


Links and Books

Web Sites

Nerve Synapse
www.conncoll.edu/academics/zoology/courses/zoo202/Nervous/synapse.html
Explains what happens at a nerve synapse and includes animation.

The Nervous System Help Outline
www.bi.iup.edu/historyofpain/helpoutlineforthenervoussystem.html
Describes the functions of the nervous system, including a diagram of a nerve cell with arrows that show how impulses travel.

CNS, Nervous System, Neurons, and Peripheral Nervous System
http://library.thinkquest.org/~16421/1024x768/frames/Systems/nervous/nervous.htm
Has basic information about the brain and the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Asperger Syndrome Fact Sheet
www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/asperger/detail_asperger.htm
Answers several frequently asked questions about Asperger syndrome.


Books

Byrnie, Faith Hickman. 101 Questions Your Brain Has Asked Itself But Couldn't Answer Until Now. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing Group, 1998.
Includes a physical description of the brain and how it functions.

Greenfield, Susan A. The Human Brain: A Guided Tour New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Includes five essays on the brain and contains information about memory and how neurons communicate.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Mirror Neurons
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