A Brain Network of Empathy


“Mirror neurons” is a term often used to explain a surprising finding from the 90’s. A group of brain researchers in a lab in Italy were researching the brain activity of groups of brain cells (neurons) in macaque monkeys, especially neurons related specifically to limb movement. The scientific tale goes, that one day during lunch break, the researchers noticed that the cells responsible for “food grasping” were firing when the one holding food was the scientist, rather then the monkey!

The surprising finding soon became one that changed the nature of social neuroscience, that is, the understanding of how our brain is involved in social interactions. It turned out that there are groups of neurons that operate exactly the same when the monkey performs a specific action (e.g., bringing an object to the mouth) or observes someone else performing the same act – neurons mirroring actions. In humans it appears that a wide network of brain areas “mirror” actions of others.

The novelty of the finding was in the elegant way it enables us understand each other, thus, being empathic. If once performing an action, somebody else, who is watching or hearing us, is going through an instant simulation of that action; he or she can easily understand us. Mirror neurons appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. That is, perhaps (and still under much research) the way we empathize and understand each other.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jasmic/276030411/

How does empathy work onstage? Check out Ed Hooks article on Sympathy vs. Empathy.


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