Unraveling the Mysteries of Empathy

Maria D’Antonio

The age old nature versus nurture debate emerges in all sorts of aspects of human behavior and psychology, including empathy—the ability to understand another’s emotional state. Could empathy, one of our most humanizing traits, be explained by biological processes? Some psychologists and neurologists believe this to be the case.

The Mirror Neuron: Feeling What Others Feel

Several scientists, like the prominent neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, claim that a special type of brain cell, called a mirror neuron, is responsible for enabling an individual to accurately imagine and feel what another person feels. Mirror neurons, like all brain cells, send electrochemical messages to each other in a series of branch-like connections, according to Craig Freudenrich, who holds a doctorate in physiology. Each connection encodes a different memory, perception, feeling, or any thought that passes through the brain whether consciously or subconsciously.

Nvate mirror neuron and empathy, imitation Vilayanur S. Ramachandran

The mirror neuron helps a person to imagine and feel what another person is feeling. Credit: martinan depositphotos.com

Mirror neurons, in turn, work like their namesake, mirroring others’ actions, according to Lea Winerman of the American Psychological Association, or APA. If, for example, one person sees another person stub their toe, then the neurons proceed to go through motions as if the observer has physically stubbed their toe. In other words, mirror neurons physically form the connections the brain would usually produce when stubbing a toe, literally miming others’ actions.

The History of Mirror Neurons

These neurons were first discovered in monkeys in the 1990s. Neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti first measured the brain activity of macaque monkeys grabbing a peanut. Then they observed the neural activity when the monkey simply watched another monkey grab a peanut. To their surprise, the brain activated the same areas of grabbing a peanut even when the observing primate stayed still.

In the first decade of the 21st century, Rizzolatti discovered the same pattern in humans using fMRI brain scans. In 2011, Ramachandran highlighted the importance and implications of these neurons in his book, “The Tell Tale Brain,” making mirror neurons one of the most recent, enthusiastic discoveries in psychology. Popularity aside, mirror neurons are a very important discovery for understanding empathy.

By mirroring the actions of another person in our own heads, we can effectively guess how the other person is feeling, which is absolutely necessary in a species as social as human beings. This neural mimicry also enables humans to learn by imitation, the chief method of learning for human beings. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to discover that scientists have found deficiencies in the mirror neuron system in autistic patients.

Empathy and Autism

According to Sadie Dingfelder of the APA, most researchers agree that without the mirror neurons’ unique ability to imitate other people, autistic patients remain locked inside their own world. Research and brain scans suggest that even high-functioning autistic patients can imitate another’s facial expression as a result of careful analysis, rather than by utilizing mirror neurons. The significance of mirror neurons cannot be denied, especially when considering the consequences of having nonfunctional mirror neurons.

Cognition and Imitation

While the importance of mirror neurons is relatively acknowledged by most researchers, some scientists believe that the hype surrounding these brain cells is unwarranted. Christian Jarrett, who holds a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience and is a writer for Psychology Today, believes that mirror neurons play “a casual role” in understanding others’ intentions. Considering the physical makeup of the brain, this is a probable conclusion.

The brain is made of cells that are constantly connecting and reconnecting with each other, always in constant communication. Although mirror neurons chiefly imitate another’s actions, the rest of the brain also analyzes mirror neural activity, and here cognition and imagination take place; understanding another’s actions and discerning their intentions are two different concepts. Thus Jarrett is justified in stating that mirror neurons are only part of the story.

However, no matter how small a role, mirror neurons do have a crucial one. Imitating others quickly and accurately is of social importance. It is the way concepts and skills are first learned and cultures passed down. Though these neurons play an important part in understanding empathy, they do not explain the whole process. Whether empathy is due more to nature or nurture is still uncertain, but there can be no denial that a biological process is part of the story.

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