Monday, December 20, 2010

Step 3 - "Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall"

Encouraging your child to imitate you (exercising what is called the mirror system), can build a brain that is better equipped for socialization, school, music and athletics, not to mention speech and language. So, every time you play an interactive imitative game like “Patty-cake, Patty-cake” you are helping your child to exercise the human mirror system. Parents have been doing these action/nursery sequences for years, and there are many similar routines in many cultures. Examples of “mirror neuron” routines that have been around and passed on for generations in Western cultures include – “So Big!” where a parent asks the child something like , “How big are you?” and the child and parent respond together holding up their arms in like fashion, “SO BIG!”  For preschoolers, songs with gestures serve the same purpose. Songs like “Ensie Weensie Spider” allow the parent and child imitate each other by alternately touching the thumb of one hand to the forefinger of the other hand to emulate the spider climbing up a water spout or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” where children act pointing to a star in the sky. The wonderful thing about these types of routines is that they illustrate how intuitive parents have been for centuries, at identifying and exploiting the natural directions and priorities of brain development. Once children get into school they will use the Human Mirror System to do everything from refining speech pronunciation to learning dances and refining athletic routines.
"Mommy and Daddy, look at this!" "Watch me now!!"

Sound familiar? Children of all ages love to perform for their parents. And it is not just our children. Parents have been instructing their children to "watch me....listen to me," probably for centuries. Humans seem to have a natural tendency to use imitation to teach then refine our skills by showing what we have learned. There is an explanation for this drive to watch and listen to learn from others.  The explanation is reasonably new; scientists call it the Human Mirror System or HMS for short.

In 1999 Marco Iacoboni and his colleagues at UCLA school of medicine began publishing research on how people learn by observing others – watch others dance, throw or hit balls, use tools…the list of motor plans we can learn from others is endless. Other neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have noted that the same phenomenon occurs with listening – how many of us enjoy singing along with the radio? And it turns out that there is a specific area in the frontal lobe – ‘the doing part of the brain’ - that begins to wire itself very early in development through imitation of the movements and sounds made by others. This area at the bottom of the frontal lobe lights up whenever a child or adult imitates movements, speech or even facial expressions.  

Because this area is very close, and may even overlap, with the part of the brain in the left hemisphere that we use to talk, researchers have speculated that it might have been an evolutionary starting point for development of human language. But, because it is also active in the right hemisphere, it seems to play an important role in social, and perhaps athletic, interaction as well.

Step  3- frequently play interactive and imitative games to develop the Human Mirror System

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