I was first exposed to the concept of mirror neurons when I attended the NASAGA (North American Simulation and Gaming Association) Conference in Vancouver in 2007. I was privileged to hear a talk by Dave Chalk. Chalk is an interesting guy on a number of levels, but most notably because he has had a highly successful career, including being a pilot, an entrepreneur, and a broadcasting personality, despite having been diagnosed at an early age of having a profound learning disorder.
One of the concepts Chalk discussed was the idea of mirror neurons. Research has demonstrated that in primates, our nervous systems react in certain ways when we engage in certain behaviors. The research further demonstrates that they react the same way when we observe the behavior or when we engage in a simulated version of the behavior. As noted by Rizzolatti & Craighero in Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27:
Each time an individual sees an action done by another individual, neurons that represent that action are activated in the motor cortex. This automatically induced, motor representation of the observed action corresponds to what is spontaneously generated during active action and whose outcome is known to the acting individual. Thus, the mirror system transforms visual information into knowledge 1
This is incredibly intriguing, because it seems to demonstrate a biological basis for the benefits of simulation. As simulation designers, we always make the argument that engaging in behaviors in simulation prepares us to engage in behaviors in the real world. But the argument has always been from a cognitive perspective—it helps us form the way we think. The mirror neuron research would suggest that it’s deeper than cognition. And for that matter, that simulation may not just be the next best thing to real world experience—it may be nearly equivalent.
Here are a few links to more info on mirror neurons:
1 Reference: Rizzolatti, G. & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169-192.