Empathy: it’s in the mirror neurons

Empathy: it’s in the mirror neurons February 25, 2008

[Guest Post by Dave Bailes] Morals used to be the responsibility of philosophy. The religious often say that we owe our morals to God, and perhaps the interpretation of them to Jesus. Atheists often claim that they have a basis in survival, cooperation between early humans.

A link between morals and empathy is often drawn which is perhaps encapsulated in The Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would wish to be treated.” Now, however, it seems that there may be a physical, genetic, origin for empathy, and thus for morals.

In the New Scientist, 10 November 2007, there is an article entitled, “Found: the source of human empathy” by Gordy Slack. In this article he writes of research done at the Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Centre on “mirror neurons”. These cells in the brain have been linked with empathy. They may also be linked with language acquisition, consciousness prediction of the actions of others, dealing with the abstract and metaphysical thinking. When one considers all of these there is, perhaps, an underlying similarity – awareness, understanding and communication.

Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys 11 years ago, but have only recently been observed in action in the human brain by means of a functional MRI scanner, a scanner that can be “tuned” to plot specific activity in the brain under specific stimuli. It could, for example, tell how much of a petrol head one is by the amount and location of the activity when one is shown a picture of one’s favourite car, as compared to pictures of other items and other cars.

The “mirror” part of the name comes from their being observed to “fire” when we mimic the actions of others. We might “cringe” for another when they make a horrible error, we might also make “group actions” when our football teams just misses that crucial goal. Some mirror actions are common, but we might also be prompted to do something out of our normal habit if given a strong enough stimulus.

There are two types of mirror neuron. Both “process” the stimuli we observe, but whereas one will cause us to mimic that action, another will actually inhibit our copying. This is a good idea – otherwise we would mimic all that we see and have little time for other things! This inhibitor type appears to be unique to humans.

So, the next time you are watching a soccer match on TV and see a “wave” of one specific physical action, arms waving in the air, hands covering faces or whatever, it may be because the fans are feeling empathetic. Their eyes have seen, their brain has interpreted; the action is a strong and appropriate one – copy it! Feel as your fellow fans do, it’s a group thing, a way of sharing in the celebration in a like way. It might, of course, also be a way of sharing and surviving the utter despair that a fluffed goal shot causes by making sure your fellow fans know that you are with them in this as well.

It may have helped us to take unified action against threats in the early days of humanity.

Dave Bailes


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