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The story behind the neuron activation meme

The neuron activation meme, which blends humor with a touch of scientific reality, has become a mainstay in internet culture.


Kahron Spearman


Posted on Dec 16, 2023   Updated on Dec 15, 2023, 4:04 pm CST

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “monkey see, monkey do,” and now, there’s a meme for that with the neuron activation meme. This popular meme is often deployed as a way to add a comedic twist to online discussions and is part of a broader category of memes known as “science diagrams that look like sh*tposts.”

Scientific basis of neuron activation

The neuron activation meme, also known as “Monkey Sees Action,” is rooted in a scientific diagram that illustrates the activation of a mirror neuron in a monkey when it observes another monkey eating a banana. The image is often overlaid with the text, “neuron activation.”

This scientific phenomenon attempts to explain social learning, and researchers believe that these types of neurons allow for qualities such as empathy to develop. Neurons in the brain communicate through electrical impulses and neurotransmitters. This process involves the soma (the central part of the neuron containing the nucleus), dendrites (which receive input from other neurons), and axons (which carry electrical signals to other neurons).

When neurons are excited, they fire electrical impulses that travel through these structures, influencing the firing of different neurons. However, over-connectivity can lead to information overload and decreased learning, while under-connectivity can limit the brain’s processing capabilities.

Online evolution of the neuron activation meme

Although the exact paper that the diagram comes from is unknown, it’s presumed to have been published prior to 2016. Video game writer Celia Wagar uploaded the first known repost of the illustration, noting its potential for humor.

In a conversation with Know Your Meme, Wagar claimed to have come across the image on X (formerly Twitter), and said she thought it might have originally been lifted from an unidentified Wikipedia post.

On Dec. 9, 2019, user mranldestroyer posted an abridged version of the monkey neuron diagram to Funnyjunk. The image gained widespread attention in February 2020, spreading rapidly across social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Creators of the neuron activation meme used the diagram as an exploitable image, often replacing the second monkey with other imagery to create humorous content. Its spread was aided by its inclusion in various reposts and edits, making it a staple in online meme culture.


The neuron activation meme, which blends humor with a touch of scientific reality, has become a mainstay in internet culture. While it offers a comedic take on brain function, it also inadvertently sheds light on the complexities of neural communication and cognitive processes.

As it continues to evolve and spread across various online platforms, the neuron activation meme continues to serve as a reminder of the intriguing and often amusing ways scientific concepts can be interpreted and repurposed in the digital world.

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*First Published: Dec 16, 2023, 6:00 am CST