Monday, February 21, 2011

A Tearjerker Movie and My Son’s Difficulties with Social Skills

My wife and I watched the 1970s’ movie Ice Castles on dvd the other day. Ice Castles is the fictional story of a young figure skater who seems headed for the Olympics until tragedy strikes. Like many other women who have seen this film, my wife cried as she watched it.

* * * * *

All of us have brain cells called mirror neurons. These neurons were first found in a monkey about 20 years ago. Italian scientists, led by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, accidentally discovered that that the same brain cells that fired when a monkey brought a peanut to its mouth also fired when the monkey watched humans or other monkeys bring peanuts to their mouths. That meant that seeing something has the same effect on these mirror neurons as actually doing the action.

The implication for humans is that mirror neurons are linked to things like empathy. In an article on the topic in the NY Times, Dr. Rizzolatti said that humans are able to understand “not just the actions of others, but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and emotions.” He went on to say that “mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct stimulation. By feeling, not thinking.”

And so, when my wife cried while watching the movie, it was because her mirror neurons allowed her to have the same feelings as the character she was watching.

In addition to their role in empathy, mirror neurons are said to play a part in developing language and in our ability to imitate and learn from the actions of others.

I bring up all this because some researchers have found a link between mirror neuron deficiency and autism. The thinking is that these deficiencies lead to disabilities in social skills, imitation, and empathy among those with autism.

That would explain some things about my son. It would explain why he has trouble with understanding and responding to social cues. It would explain why he doesn’t seem to learn social skills just from being in the same classroom as typical kids. It would explain his difficulty in imitating others.

However, the research on mirror neurons is not conclusive, and a recent study challenges the connection to autism. So, for now, it is just something intriguing to think about.

While I’m pondering all this, I’m off to find a movie that will make my wife laugh instead. Any suggestions?

For those of you interested in reading more about mirror neurons, you may want to check out these articles:
The NY Times article, “Cells That Read Minds”
The transcripts from the PBS Nova show on mirror neurons
The New Scientist article on the study that challenges the link with autism


  1. I definitely think that there could be a connection between autism and mirror neurons. I was actually talking about this with my sister this morning because we both kept yawning.

  2. I never heard of mirror neurons until a few days ago when Kai's psychotherapist mentioned it to us. Now, I am fascinated. I may try some experiments (like yawning) with Kai to see what happens.

  3. I recommend the vast collection of Mel Brooks films. A genius of the funny bone. :)

  4. I'm not sure I've ever seen a Mel Brooks movie. My impression, though, is that they're more "guy" humor than something for women. Willing to try, though.


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