Hot new area of brain research offers hope for better training, sharper "street smarts"

August 12, 2021
Force Science News #25

 New findings from brain research laboratories, based on studies of subjects  ranging from monkeys to ballet dancers, are offering fresh insights into how law enforcement trainers can best deliver their instruction and how street officers can better learn to read and anticipate dangerous or  deceptive suspect behavior.

The research focuses on clusters of specialized cells in the area of the brain involved in planning movements. The ramifications of these cells, called mirror neurons, were unknown until a few years ago. Now one of the hottest areas of neurological research, they seem to be critically involved in learning motor skills by imitation and visualization and in helping us interpret the intentions of people we come in contact with.

Further investigation of mirror neurons promises "to do for neuroscience what DNA did for biology," a brain researcher at the University of California-San Diego enthusiastically predicts. He expects they eventually  will unlock explanations for "a host of mental abilities that have remained  mysterious."

Already, says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science  Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, what's being  discovered about mirror neurons suggests "profound implications about how police officers need to be trained.

"The more an instructor can stimulate mirror neurons, the greater the chance that officers can readily pick up new skills. Also they will clue in more quickly to recognizing when those skills need to be used for their own  protection."

Recent findings on the surprising power of these special cells began by  accident in a research laboratory in Italy where scientists were studying the brain cells of macaque monkeys. Researchers had confirmed that when a  monkey grabbed for a peanut certain cells on either side of its brain "fired" (activated), creating a buzzing sound that was detectible by highly sophisticated monitoring equipment.

One day a monkey wired up for an experiment happened to see a human grab a peanut. The same neurons fired in the same way. In terms of motor cell activity, the brain could not tell the difference between actually doing  something and seeing it done.

Interestingly, subsequent testing revealed that these brain cells, now called mirror neurons, did not react when monkeys watched a mechanical robotic device grasp a peanut. "They only reacted when a human or simian hand performed the task," Lewinski says.

More experiments confirmed what good instructors have always known  intuitively: modeling "ideal" behavior is an important component of  teaching. Through the impact of activated mirror neurons on your brain, watching in detail how an instructor manipulates a pistol to fire accurately or performs complex DT moves improves your own ability to reproduce those skills--"provided you are paying attention and are > interested in what's being demonstrated," Lewinski says.

Also, studies with ballet dancers and martial artists have shown that even  if you are injured and can't move normally, mirror neurons may help you  maintain a skill you have learned if you watch others perform it correctly. Beyond that, it now appears that mirror neurons, which are strongly linked  to the emotional centers of the brain, also can help us grasp another person's emotional messages as well as physical actions through the cellular stimulation of watching. From facial expressions, body language and speech, our mirror neurons start firing when we recognize in another  person something that's emotionally familiar to us.

A researcher from UCLA told the Wall Street Journal that experiments he has conducted suggest that "mirror neurons do not simply recognize actions but are also involved in decoding people's intentions." Explaining exactly how  this happens requires more research, but the neurons do seem to be able to  help us interpret "the 'why' of some action," allowing for "predicting the  behavior" of other people.

All this should send an important message to law enforcement trainers, Lewinski believes.

"In academies and in-service training, instructors often teach by lecture because it's easier," he explains. "But just talking about something or reading about it is not enough. We need to be repeatedly incorporating  actual physical examples that officers can watch when we are trying to teach skills that can be modeled.

"And not just obvious motor functions like DT and firearms techniques, which need to be carefully modeled over and over again. Officers also need  to see interviewing conducted as it should be done. They need to see how a  psychopath attempts to manipulate the interviewer, and how a skilled  officer deals with that. And this needs to be repeated again and again too.

"Role playing how a suspect might act is not sufficient, unless the role-player is a very highly skilled actor. Your students need to see real suspects in real situations, because their facial expressions, voice tone,  language, and overall behavior will be genuine. This will help officers in the class begin to notice and absorb subtle cues of deception, for example.

"Then when they see such cues again--on the street--there will be recognition, set off by their mirror neurons firing like crazy, that will make the hair on the back of their neck stand up as a warning sign."

These techniques are especially important with today's recruits, Lewinski  explains. "Cops in earlier days mostly came from a different environment," he says. "They grew up in the kind of neighborhood I grew up in. Criminals  were part of the population, violence was part of the ambiance. Your childhood experiences educated you about deviant human behavior and danger signals.

"Most of today's new officers haven't experienced this in their personal backgrounds. They have to be introduced to the kind of people and situations they'll be dealing with. They need to be shown videos of people  attacking officers, not for the shock value but as footage they can study  for pre-attack indicators."

As a practitioner, FSRC National Board Member Gary Klugiewicz, well known as a DT trainer for his Active Countermeasures System, agrees about the importance of modeling as an instructional tool. "This is why it's  important to teach by demonstration, then explanation, repetition and  simulation," Klugiewicz says.

However, the mirror neuron findings up the challenge for trainers, in his  opinion. "We had better be certain we are demonstrating perfect examples of what we want our students to learn," he told Force Science News, "because  they will mirror what we show them, right or wrong. And the science suggests that this form of learning is even more powerful than we imagined."

He recalls a painfully embarrassing moment from his martial arts career when he had a class of his students perform for his karate master. The  master watched for awhile, then observed: "These must be your students  because they are all doing the same thing wrong that you are."

"If you are modeling incorrectly," Klugiewicz says, "your students will  learn to perform incorrectly and not even know it."

Trainer Kenneth Murray, author of the popular reality-based training  textbook "Training at the Speed of Life" and a member of FSRC's Technical  Advisory Board, agrees. "The cerebellum of the brain is nonjudgmental," he  says. "It will store bad repetitions, or the observation of incorrect form,  equally well as it will good repetition or observations of correct form."

Murray points out that the power of "excellence modeling" has been  understood for several decades, even though recent developments better  illuminate the brain function underlying it.

"There is no doubt that watching excellent form can increase the speed of learning," he says. "This is the basis for the pioneering work in modeling by Dr. Karl Pribram, professor of neuropsychology at Stanford, and by Steve DeVore, who made practical applications of modeling theory through his Sybervision system for teaching athletic skills, developed in the 1980s."

DeVore personally demonstrated a dramatic example of learning through modeling, Murray recalls. "After intensely focusing on professional bowlers on television, DeVore went immediately to a bowling alley and threw 9 strikes in a row," Murray says. "That's something much more than just luck."

DeVore today believes that excellence-modeling training programs that would engage mirror neurons could have significant impact on improving not only law enforcement practical skills but also judgmental skills in critical incidents.

Murray hopes that current findings about mirror neurons will help further a reform of law enforcement training he believes is desperately needed.

"So often the teaching model in police training is negative," he explains.  "Inexperienced trainers run officers through role-playing exercises and often unwittingly give them the experience of failure. Rather than intervene at the point of failure or at least remediate the exercise so that effective action is experienced, they simply end the scenario and then tell the officers what they did wrong.

"We don't need to teach what not to do. We need to model successful behavior and help officers internalize that optimal behavior."

For a 14-minute video explaining mirror neurons, visit this Nova site: