Programmed to learn? The ontogeny of mirror neurons


Address for correspondence: Marco Del Giudice, Center for Cognitive Science, Department of Psychology, University of Turin, 10123 Torino, Italy; e-mail:


Mirror neurons are increasingly recognized as a crucial substrate for many developmental processes, including imitation and social learning. Although there has been considerable progress in describing their function and localization in the primate and adult human brain, we still know little about their ontogeny. The idea that mirror neurons result from Hebbian learning while the child observes/hears his/her own actions has received remarkable empirical support in recent years. Here we add a new element to this proposal, by suggesting that the infant's perceptual-motor system is optimized to provide the brain with the correct input for Hebbian learning, thus facilitating the association between the perception of actions and their corresponding motor programs. We review evidence that infants (1) have a marked visual preference for hands, (2) show cyclic movement patterns with a frequency that could be in the optimal range for enhanced Hebbian learning, and (3) show synchronized theta EEG (also known to favour synaptic Hebbian learning) in mirror cortical areas during self-observation of grasping. These conditions, taken together, would allow mirror neurons for manual actions to develop quickly and reliably through experiential canalization. Our hypothesis provides a plausible pathway for the emergence of mirror neurons that integrates learning with genetic pre-programming, suggesting new avenues for research on the link between synaptic processes and behaviour in ontogeny.