Mirror Neurons and The Role They Play in Dance/Movement Therapy

Dance, movement and neuroscience are three fields of study that are the target of a relatively novel therapeutic approach aimed at rekindling empathy, social interaction, and morality within those who may have lost the ability to do so or those who have a disorder that prevents them from doing so. This type of therapy has been termed dance/movement therapy (DMT). DMT takes advantage of the fact that specific types of neurons, referred to as mirror neurons, have the ability to promote empathy, attachment, and social bonding through the use of dance and movement (Berrol 2006; McGarry & Russo 2011; Behrends et al. 2012; Koch et al. 1996; Pierce 2014). The mechanisms and ways in which dance and movement can be utilized in this way will be explored in this paper.

Mirror neurons and their function in the brain

The mirror neuron system is the neural network that DMT takes advantage of to confer its beneficial affects upon an individual. This mirror neuron system was first discovered in macaque monkeys. Single neurons were recorded with the use of microelectrodes while monkeys observed a series of actions such as grasping, holding, placing, and manipulating of food and other objects. Various groups of neurons fired in different patterns and frequencies depending on the type of action observed. The simple presentation of objects, faces, or hands did not evoke a response in these neurons. There had to be some type of action or goal directed behavior associated with the movement. The different types of mirror neurons associated with different actions were highly specific with regards to firing in response to the action. For example, a neuron that responded to grasping an object with a precision tool, such as with a pair of forceps, did not respond when grasping the same object with a hand, nor did the neuron respond when there was no object being grasped. This illustrates the high degree of specificity that this system of neurons can display. Some mirror neurons also responded specifically to which hand was used and the direction of the action (Gallese 1996).

Empathy and Dance/Movement Therapy

Empathy is the embodiment of another’s experience and the feelings or ideas that come along with this embodiment. DMT specifically targets this aspect of human experience and, as previously mentioned, utilizes the mirror neuron system to do so. DMT employs the mirroring of a patient by a therapist to build a sense of empathy between the two. This is the perception-action cycle at work. The mirror neuron system has been viewed as the neural correlates of this perception-action cycle. Perceiving one’s actions activates mirror neurons creating a visceral experience within the observer due to the same activation of neurons in the observer, as if they were performing the movement. The ensuing action is a result of that visceral experience.

Concluding remarks

Mirror neurons play a vital role in our lives. They allow us to learn from childhood by observing the actions of others, they allow us to feel empathy towards one another, bring together entire communities by means of dance, and even provide therapeutic approaches to social issues caused by neurological disorders. We have only just begun to understand the potential of this highly specialized set of neurons and future research will continue to uncover the secrets of them that lie within the depths of our minds.


Behrends, A., Müller, S., & Dziobek, I. (2012). Moving in and out of synchrony: A concept for a new intervention fostering empathy through interactional movement and dance. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39(2), 107–116.

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