The Cornered Cat
Mirror, mirror, on the range…

Did you know there are special cells inside your brain that are actually designed to mimic the people around you? Yup. It’s true. They are called mirror neurons, like holding a mirror up in front of your face. Imitating others is actually hardwired into human beings. If you make a face at a newborn baby, pretty soon that baby will make the same face back at you. Stick out your tongue, the baby sticks out her tongue. Growl and make a monster face, and the baby makes a monster face back at you. Pretty cool!

Make a face at a baby. What does the baby do -- and why?

Make a face at a baby. What does the baby do next — and why?

Those same mirror neurons that help a baby learn to use his face also work throughout our lives to help us build connections with other people. You might think of them as the wiring for empathy, because they are the neurons that fire when you see someone else do something. For example, if you see someone hit her thumb with a hammer, you might cringe. Watch a TV show where someone gets kicked in the crotch, and watch every guy in the room cross his legs in sympathy. That’s mirror neurons at work.

But mirror neurons don’t just fire when bad things happen. They fire when good things happen too. When you see someone demonstrate a skill – whether that skill is using a sewing machine or a pottery wheel, driving a stick shift or shooting a gun – the mirror neurons in your head start firing. They actually fire in the exact same area of your brain that would be active if you were doing the skill yourself. Demonstrating skills for others actually pre-primes their brains to learn the skill much more easily. Giving people a good model to work from is one of the hallmarks of an effective teacher, because humans are hardwired to imitate others.

This has a whole bunch of implications for how we learn to shoot and how we learn to teach. First and most obvious: smart instructors demonstrate skills for their students. Instructors who make excuses not to demonstrate are often allowing their own egos (often, fear of failure or looking bad) get in the way of their students’ best opportunities to learn.

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