Photo by Ars Electronica.
Science / Neuroscience

Mirror Neurons and Empathy

You’re watching football on TV and wince at a particularly nasty tackle. Or you see someone getting a shot and rub your own arm, imagining the pain. You watch someone fall off their bike and cringe. All of these experiences, experiences where you react almost instinctively to other people’s experiences, may be due to mirror neurons.

In the 1980’s, Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and a research team observed neurons firing in an area of the premotor cortex – also referred to as F5 – of macaque monkeys when the monkeys reached for a peanut. Intending to study how those neurons fired in response to various objects and actions, the researchers quickly observedthat the same neurons that fired when the monkey grasped a peanut also fired when the monkey watched a researcher grasp a peanut. The researchers were able to observe individual neuron responses to very specific actions and later dubbed their discovery “mirror neurons.” While harder to isolate single neurons in humans, scientists have still been able to find evidence of a mirror neuron system in human brains.

Though mirror neurons do not comprise all the neurons in the body and do not have minds of their own, science has found them to be incredibly complex and nuanced in their function. In an experiment with a teacup, Christian Keysers investigated the broader role mirror neurons may play in shaping how we understand other people’s emotions and intentions. Their experiment tried to determine whether mirror neurons were capable of distinguishing between various possible intentions associated with picking up a teacup. Keysers and his colleagues took fMRIs of their participants, as the participants watched two different videos. The first video showed a hand picking up a teacup that was situated in the midst of a messy table. The second video showed a hand picking up a teacup that sat by itself on a table with no external cues to suggest what purpose picking up the teacup was fulfilling. The data showed that mirror neurons were more active in response to the video that contained context (i.e. the messy table) rather than the contextless video, suggesting that there is a way in which these neurons can begin to recognize not only the actions of others, but also their intentions.

Many scientists have credited mirror neurons as the basis of empathy and as a key factor in allowing humans to interact in a complex social world. V.S. Ramachandran, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California San Diego, went so far as to call them the “basis of civilization” in his TED talk. While mirror neurons alone don’t allow us to effectively engage with the complex communities in which we live, Ramachandran makes a strong case for their importance, particularly with reference to their ability to allow us to empathize with others. In an interview with Greater Good Magazine, Ramachandran explained: “if I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain—saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.” He went on to clarify that “[mirror neurons] enable me to see you as an intentional being, with purpose and intention.” In fact, the extent to which mirror neurons have implications for society may be best encapsulated in the proposition that mirror neuron dysfunction may be involved in autism. Ramachandran suggests that people with autism lack “empathy” and a “theory of mind,”and this may be due to abnormally functioning mirror neurons. Other research, however, has suggested that people with autism do feel empathy, they just express it differently.

It is important when listening to Ramachandran to recognize the assumption in his argument of the importance of mirror neurons to society – namely, that empathy is a key ingredient to civilized society. Whether or not society would exist without empathy is a whole other line of inquiry, but thinking of a society without empathy certainly suggests that empathy may in fact be more important than we think in terms of our ability to see other humans as, well, human.