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Mirror Neurons: Underlying Human Empathy

Most people can recall feeling embarrassed due to a situation they witnessed, or sad after seeing someone else cry. What causes these second-hand emotions? It turns out cells called mirror neurons play a role in our reactions in these sorts of scenarios.

What are mirror neurons?

Neuronal cells make up the circuitry of the brain. They consist of a round body and long cellular extension called an axon, which conducts electrical impulses from neuron to neuron. These impulses facilitate the sending of signals and initiation of responses, allowing the brain to perform its many vital functions.

Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys, and were uncovered more recently in humans as well. Networks formed by these cells exist in various regions in the brain, including those associated with movement, smell, touch, and perception. Their intrigue lies in their ability to respond equally when a person performs an action or watches someone else perform the same action.

Role in Empathy

Empathy encompasses understanding and sharing the emotions of other people. When showing empathy, an individual comprehends the actions of others and tries to connect the thought behind them. The individual may imagine what he or she would do in the mindset of the other person. Often times, this works because, while differing in personality types, we humans share fundamental similarities in the way we think. Our brains contain the same general structuring.

Mirror neurons play a role in empathy because of their unique property (described earlier). When someone observes an action, mirror neurons in the brain send out impulses. These neurons are the same ones that would fire if the person watching was the one doing the action. As a result, the observer reflects some of the outcome of the action as their brain relates the action with the observer’s prior experience doing that action.

Being able to connect personally to an action makes it easier to show empathy for that action. For example, when a person sees or hears someone else crying, mirror neurons in their brain send off signals. These signals cause the brain to make connections to how it feels to cry, or memories related to tears. The connections made invoke sympathy and help someone know how to better comfort the person crying.

Overall Impact

Without a doubt, mirror neurons help people achieve the connection that is a basic craving of all humans. These powerful cells allow the emotions and experiences of others to resonate within ourselves and remind us of the likeness residing within us all. Their role in empathy us remains only one of many reasons why their discovery several decades ago was extremely important.

For more information on the history and functions of mirror neurons, visit here and here.

Edited by: Maria ‘Stefi’ Ticsa