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Mirror Neurons, or Why I Can’t Dance

The other day I was watching a TED Talk by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran describing the function of “mirror neurons” in the human brain. These neurons are like the motor neurons (which fire when you move), but mirror neurons fire when you merely watch someone else moving. Amazing; that’s empathy at the physiological level. As Ramachandran said, “They must be involved in things like imitation and emulation, because to imitate a complex act requires my brain to adopt the other person’s point of view.”

Fine, but I don’t think I was born with any mirror neurons. Let me illustrate.

Over the last week, I’ve been trying desperately to imitate a “complex act,” viz., a video of the great drummer Peter Erskine playing brushes. He explains every stroke and sweep, all the while moving in slow motion, and I still had a remarkably difficult time imitating it. The experience reminded me of my ballroom dancing days where learning each step was a painful process that took months. I can’t believe it’s this hard for everyone. I should distinguish between the first stage of learning a movement and the subsequent practicing of it until it becomes “natural” (or in the case of my dancing, merely less grotesque). I expect practicing to take lots of time; my frustration is only with the first stage.

Admittedly, Ramachandran doesn’t say that mirror neurons make imitation easy, just possible, so maybe my expectations are just too high. On the other hand, I can imitate things by ear pretty easily, so I imagine others can pick up things by eye just as easily. What I do seem to have, at least, is the perseverance to keep trying until I get it. I guess we are each blessed with an unevenly distributed set of gifts—weakness in one area is compensated by strength in another.


Great post on an idea I never heard of before. You might want to also check out readiness potential, where thinking about an action fires up the motor cortex with a "Ready... set" group of signals. It's what puts us on our toes before doing something, so to speak. Audiation, the idea of thinking and hearing sounds in your mind, relates to this and mental rehearsing, which is a subject of significant music research interest. Brush work is like Tai C hi for drummers, a great way to keep the neurons (mirror or otherwise) polished and primed. Good luck with your practice of the light touch.

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