MIRROR NEURONS

Even when a person with dementia can no longer do much, they can benefit from simply watching you do something as long as you include them. “Mom, I’m going to put together a puzzle. I’d love for you to keep me company.” Invite them to watch and talk about what you are doing with them. In this way, they are interacting and an interesting brain process happens; mirror neurons kick in and whatever they are watching you do their brain reacts as though it is doing it too.

Ever wonder why we get so excited watching sporting events on TV or teary-eyed while watching a sad movie? While watching someone else doing something, our brain will perceive it as if we were doing it ourselves.

V.S. Ramachandran, who heads the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, used MRI scans in his research and discovered that the same neurons trigger when we watch someone doing something as when we are doing it ourselves. These mirror neurons also activate when we simply imagine ourselves doing something.

As a child, I loved horses and habitually hung out at a stable in a nearby park. We were too poor to afford riding lessons, so I’d just watch while people took lessons in the indoor ring or rode the park trails and daydream of getting in the saddle and galloping away.

On my ninth birthday, I received a gift of a riding lesson. To my amazement and that of my instructor, I rode like an expert, effortlessly performing all the complex maneuvers of English riding.

Training commercial airline pilots require about a month on a video simulator, which allows trainees to pilot a virtual plane and respond during emergencies. The simulator trains their brains to automatically perform the actions when they are flying a real plane.

The idea that the brain can be automatically trained through videos is pretty scary when we think of all the young children playing violent video games for hours every day. But brain-training computer programs can also be quite beneficial. I used a program to increase the number of words a minute I could read, and amazingly, it doubled my ability.

Because the brain is constantly creating new neuronal connections, such programs are especially helpful for people with dementia, especially in early stages. Many video games are designed to help exercise your brain and increase neuronal activity.

If some were programmed like the pilots’ simulator, it might help those with advanced stages of dementia relearn what was forgotten or even learn something new just by watching.

So remember every time you engage the person with dementia to watch what you are doing, they mentally are doing it too.

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