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Empathy and Mirror Neurons

It is amazing to consider how the brain’s functions have been developed through the evolution of humanity in a need to survive. And part of the need to survive is to live in society and in relationship to others.

The development of language that started from following gestures and sounds, with mirror neurons firing as those gestures conveyed emotions between humans. Humans developed a brain and nervous system wired for empathy. We use our body to communicate our intentions and our feelings through gestures, hand movements and body postures. Iacoboni a neuroscientist describes that “mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions.”

Since the technological advancement, neuroscientists have now the capacity to study more closely the different functions in the various areas of the brain. Intersubjectivity or the study of how we relate between each other has focused on finding the brain connections that light up as we engage in relating with one another.

It seems that now like before inter-personal relationships are important for a person’s survival and well being. According to Iacoboni mirror neurons light up when we see the actions of others and more neurons light up when the action is related to survival, like eating rather than picking up the dirty dishes after eating. Mirror neurons light up when we hear sounds related to actions, when we imitate, see gestures and even when the actions are partially visible.

Mirror neurons even fire when there’s an anticipation of pain, like when going to get a pinprick or as empathy when seeing someone receive a pinprick. The mirror neuron system includes mimicking actions, reading intentions and reading emotions. Mirror neurons make emotions contagious, like when someone smiles at you, you find yourself smiling back. Mirror neurons supports humans to be sensible to each other, by imitating (or putting ourselves in the other’s shoes) one feels empathy, since we become like the other for a little bit.

According to Stern the development of the mirror neuron system is dependent on the interaction with out mother or caregiver, “our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within the skin”.

Mirror neurons are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people. Reduced mirror neuron activity obviously weakens the ability to experience immediately and effortlessly what other people are experiencing, thus making social interactions particularly difficult.

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