Facts of the Matter
Mirror neurons help us share emotions
People are fascinated to watch ourselves in mirrors, but we must watch others for models of how to behave.
We are empathetic and sympathetic, which allows us to share and understand the feelings of others.
Humans can connect with other people that we are just watching. We get excited as sports spectators. We cry, laugh and scream at movies as we identify with the feelings and situations of the characters.
Neuroscience researchers have learned that we have special brain cells that are part of empathy and sympathy, which are two important hallmarks of humanity.
Called mirror neurons, these brain cells can connect to emotional centers that allow us to tune into others' feelings and see inside their thoughts.
Mirror neurons are a set of cells on either side of the brain, in the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal cortex. Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma, Italy, discovered them accidentally in 1996 while he was studying a particular neuron that fired when a monkey reached for peanut.
When the monkey saw Rizzolatti himself reach for a peanut, the same neuron fired. It could not tell the difference between seeing and doing. They were one and the same, like an object and its image in a mirror.
Research done in the short time since Rizzolatti's monkey appears to link many different areas of neuroscience, linguistics and behavioral sciences.
Certain areas of the brains of human subjects "lit up" while they tried to mimic a collection of expressions on photographs of faces. Viewing the same photos later while trying not to change facial expressions lit up the same areas.
As it had been with the monkeys, seeing and doing caused activity in the regions of the brain where the mirror neurons reside.
We are intensely social creatures, but unlike other species we developed culture and language, which continue to evolve.
Culture comes from imitation of behaviors learned from watching and interacting with others. We learn to enter into and share another's feelings as we develop a sophisticated "theory of other minds."
Throughout life, our ability to identify with another person's mental state grows as we share experiences and mimic one another's behavior.
The efficacy of these connections between emotion and mirror neurons has been a key development in our evolution, and likely coincides with the origins of culture. The better our distant ancestors became at watching, learning, copying and teaching, the faster cultural changes and technological developments occurred.
One area where the study of mirror neurons has great promise is with autism. An intelligent autistic individual has a notable deficit of social interaction skills, such as avoiding eye contact, misunderstanding questions and weak empathy.
Most people's brain waves look the same in electroencephalograms (EEGs) when doing as when watching, but those of autistic individuals are different.
Actors, singers and dancers know how to inspire feelings with movements and facial expressions, while salesmen know how to interpret the subtleties of ours. They are the practicing experts of this mirroring system.
Richard Brill, professor of science at Honolulu Community College (honolulu.hawaii.edu/~rickb
), teaches earth and physical science and investigates life and the universe. His column is published on the first and third Sundays of every month. E-mail questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org