In Chapter 6, Learning, we were introduced to several cognitive models of learning. One model was observational learning. According to this model, we learn by watching others. It is a form of latent learning because it allows us to learn without reinforcement. We simply watch someone else perform a task or behavior, we see the reinforcement he or she receives, and we learn from it.
Mirror neurons, located in the prefrontal cortex, become activated when we watch someone else do something. An example in the book is when we see an athlete sustain an injury. When the athlete winces in pain, we also wince. Mirror neurons can explain why fans get so excited and involved in a game. The mirror neurons that correspond to motor areas are becoming activated.
Mirror neurons have also been implicated in empathy and autism. We can experience empathy when we are able to take the perspective of someone else. If we see someone get hurt, like the athlete example in the previous paragraph, we "feel his pain." Our mirror neurons are activated and we can imagine what he just experienced as if we experienced it as well. A lack of empathy, or a deficit in the ability to understand another's perspective, has been associated with autism. Perhaps people with autism have abnormalities in their mirror neurons, which inhibit their perspective taking abilities. Currently, it is just a correlation, not a cause.
The discovery of mirror neurons may allow for many new developments in how we learn and for more understanding of autism.