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brain-friendly sciences

Learning by imitating: how mirror neurons help us

Parents and all other close family members are role models for a baby all along the line. Because the toddler explores the world curiously and wants to do the same as the big ones. Babies learn by imitating what we show them. This urge to imitate others continues into adulthood. No wonder that the core competence of human learning lies not in patiently solving problems, but in imitation. This means that learning rules and memorizing (for example, vocabulary in language learning) are against the natural way of learning. Instead, we should learn more intuitively and brain-orientated and put imitation in the foreground. As children, we learn the most complicated things from adults, such as the rules of language. Why not rely on this simple learning method at school and later in life?


The power of mirror neurons

Our counterpart yawns, and we automatically have to yawn too. We simply cannot suppress our tears when we watch a sad film. We literally feel the pain when someone else hits his finger with a hammer. And laughter is contagious. That we feel what others feel is due to specific nerves in our brain – the mirror neurons. Only they make us a social, compassionate being.

Mirror neurons are a kind of resonance system in the brain. Just a few hours after birth, babies can imitate facial expressions with reflexes – they blink, form an O-mouth and stick out their tongue… The ability to imitate does not grow by itself; it needs people as role models.

With the discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s, the perspective for understanding humans opened up once again. These nerve cells in the brain have been assigned the basis for compassion and intuition. The revolutionary discovery that came with this was that learning is not possible without emotion and subjectivity. The hitherto strict scientific separation of mind and feeling, proof and wisdom, was shaken.

The mirroring and resonance phenomena are being applied in child-oriented learning. We all learned our mother tongue through observation and imitation. In medicine, stroke patients with paralysis of the extremities can accelerate the relearning of lost skills by observing arm or leg movements. The mirror neurons are the neurophysiological basis for the best learning method when it comes to activities. These findings do not only explain how mental training works.

The activity of mirror nerve cells often escapes consciousness and is hardly controllable. They react very quickly; therefore unconsciously, the mind takes much longer. Mirror neurons do not require attention.


How mirror neurons support learning

Psychoanalyst Joachim Bauer concluded in his book about mirror neurons (“Why I feel what you feel”) that no learning takes place without activating mirror neurons. Remember that for thousands of years we have been able to learn and understand behaviour mainly by observing over and over again over a long period of time until we started to participate, and in the end we were able to do it on our own.

Understanding is not an abstract intellectual act. It is based much more on the motor system of the brain. Responsible for understanding is observing, which is also possible unconsciously through mirror neurons. It is true that understanding does not require any mediation through thinking, concepts and/or language, because it is solely based on the act stored in the brain. Based on this information, one wonders: Why is everything always explained and “chewed up” at school? Shouldn’t we learn “from life” – through observation and imitation – and discover new things better ourselves?

The Birkenbihl Approach (the fundament of brain-friendly language courses) is based on learning by imitating. By listening to native speakers, a foreign language is learned intuitively and brain-friendly. The two main steps of the method are karaoke listening (or active listening) and background listening (also called passive listening). In karaoke listening, the learner devotes himself to a foreign-language text for which there is an audio recording. In addition, a word-for-word translation of the text into the mother tongue is required. Just like singing karaoke, but with a two-line text: the foreign language at the top, directly below the word-for-word translation into the mother tongue. Now the learner listens to the speaker and reads the translation (the bottom line!) quietly or in his head. By listening, you observe. The mirror neurons are working at full speed for us. The translations further accelerate the process of understanding.

The second important step of the Birkenbihl Approach is background listening. You can hear the foreign-language text – preferably day and night – subconsciously. We don’t even have to concentrate on what we hear, because the mirror neurons work for us in the background again. Nerve tracts are created for the new sounds, the speech melody, and the speech rhythm. After a few days, you can pronounce the words and sentences almost perfectly on your own.

Use the abilities of your brain and learn brain-friendly! You can find out more about the brain-friendly language courses here: www.brain-friendly.com


And the mirror neurons can even do more

In addition to their ability to resonate, mirror neurons have the astonishing ability to complete the expected whole from a few pieces of information they receive within a second so that we get an intuitive overall impression of the overall situation in which we find ourselves at the given moment. The ability of the mirror neurons to complete this process enables us to recognize the entire melody when we hear a few tones.

This ability can also be used for language learning: Even if you do not understand 100 percent of the words in a foreign-language text, you will still understand the meaning of a sentence. The brain automatically closes the gaps; word meanings arise from the context and you are continually learning. Completeness also helps us in learning grammar: grammar rules do not have to be learned by heart, because the brain can automatically deduce rules. So, if you read/hear enough examples of the subjunctive II, you can apply the tense automatically. That’s how most of us feel in our mother tongue – or could you form an example sentence with the subjunctive II right away?

By the way: The Birkenbihl Approach works completely without grammar rules! Details of the method can be found here.


Imitation is the most effective form of learning: The human brain has various mechanisms that allow us to imitate actions. If we use them, we learn more efficiently, more sustainably and faster. In this sense: Smile and the world smiles back.

Content Manager and blogger Katharina Rucker has devoted herself to the Birkenbihl Approach for language learning since 2011. Since 2014, she has been working as a freelancer in the field of online marketing: www.rucker-marketing.at

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