When you see someone suffering, you cringe. When you see someone helpless, you empathize. When you see someone hit their toe, you recoil in sympathy. Ever wondered why?
In the 1990s, scientists first observed that there were a set of neurons (nerve cells) in a monkey’s brain that fired both, when the monkey performed an action and when it saw another performing the same action. The scientists called this set of nerve cells the Mirror Neurons. Soon after, they discovered that humans have similar mirror neurons. In the December 1998 issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Gallese and Goldman describe these neurons beautifully – “Every time we are looking at someone performing an action, the same motor circuits that are recruited when we ourselves perform that action are concurrently activated.”
Interestingly, when we see someone with a particular facial expression, the same regions in our brain fire up that would have if we had that expression ourselves. This is important in trying to understand how we read and interpret facial expressions. This is important in social behaviour. People who suffer from disorders of the autistic spectra and face challenges in social behaviour are found to have a dysfunctional mirror neuron system. The worse the patient’s disorder, the less functional the mirror neuron system. Scientists infer that mirror neurons must also aid in our understanding/interpretation of someone’s intentions through their actions.
With that in mind, it is not too difficult to imagine that these very neurons must play a role in us having empathy too. Empathy is essentially feeling for others what you would feel if you went through that same experience. It is about ‘identifying’ with another’s emotions. It is about mirroring others’ emotions.
Although to my knowledge we don’t have any direct evidence that mirror neurons are responsible for empathy but they are the most likely candidates…
And if it is really true that empathy is controlled by mirror neurons, I think I have a whole bunch extra in my brain 😉
Have you known about Mirror Neurons? Aren’t they exciting? When did you first come across these?