Mirror Neurons and the Neuroscience of Empathy

Mirror NeuronsGroundbreaking research in the 1990s discovered that “mirror neurons” fire whether monkeys perform an activity themselves or observe others engaging in it (Rizzolatti & Fabbri-Destro, 2010).

In the decades since, studies suggest that humans also have mirror neurons, and they are fundamental to what it means to be human (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).

Neuroscience shows that mirror neurons impact our ability to grasp new skills, acquire knowledge, and form deep emotional connections with those around us, even helping us understand why people do what they do (Cook et al., 2014).

This article explores the nature of mirror neurons and how they affect our learning and cognition and boost our empathy.

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What Are Mirror Neurons in Psychology?

Mirror neurons facilitate our learning by enabling us to imitate and understand the actions and behavior of those we observe. When we watch others engaged in a task, areas of our brain are stimulated as though the task is being performed by us.

For example, neuroimaging studies show that the same brain areas are activated in motion perception and motion production, whether we are watching someone run down the street or doing so ourselves (Woolfolk, 2021).

While these neurons fire at the same time as the behavior we observe, they also activate later when we recall what happened (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Sadly, watching a concert violinist play doesn’t mean we can pick up a Stradivarius and start playing Bach, particularly when we have never had lessons. Mirror neurons do not provide us with an “exact motoric coding of observed actions” (Eysenck & Keane, 2015, p. 141), yet they do support observation, visualization, and representation and are, therefore, a vital aspect of our learning (Woolfolk, 2021).

Imitating and comprehending others’ activities is particularly helpful for young children’s learning skills (the how), such as speech, movement, and play. Mirror neurons also appear to provide sufficient information to predict why someone is performing the behavior they are engaged in, and this is a powerful mechanism for emotional understanding (Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014).

Why are mirror neurons important?

Mirror neurons are a vital aspect of our evolutionary inheritance, as they are associated with “one of the most intriguing aspects of our complex thought process, that is ‘intentional understanding’” (Acharya & Shukla, 2012, p. 119).

When we observe an action performed by another, we typically receive two vital pieces of information (Acharya & Shukla, 2012):

  • What action is being taken?
  • Why is the action being done?

The second piece is more complex, identifying intention. Our mirror neurons engage to predict what is yet to occur, boosting our opportunity to learn and empathize (Acharya & Shukla, 2012; Wilson, 2014).

The neurons that shaped civilization

To find out more, check out neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran’s enlightening TED talk.

How Does the Mirror Neuron System Work?

“Mirror neurons represent a distinctive class of neurons that discharge both when an individual executes a motor act and when he observes another individual performing the same or a similar motor act” (Acharya & Shukla, 2012, p. 118).

They have been found in multiple brain areas, including the premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, primary somatosensory cortex, amygdala, thalamus, and inferior parietal cortex. As such, they are potentially engaged in the following (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022; Eysenck & Keane, 2015):

  • Initiating, planning, and coordinating movements and storing motor programs for learned actions
  • Processing sensory information related to touch, pressure, and proprioception (awareness of body position) from different parts of the body
  • Sensorimotor integration, spatial awareness, and perception of objects in relation to oneself
  • Processing emotions and regulating emotional responses

Context is essential. Mirror neurons are more likely to fire when the observer can connect with and understand the person’s goals or intentions (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

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The Neuroscience of Empathy and Mirror Neurons

Neuroscientists believe that the areas of the brain typically activated by our own emotions are also active when we observe another individual experiencing feelings or sensations.

Evidence suggests that mirror neurons are strongly associated with human empathy. And that’s important. After all, empathy enables us to put ourselves in another’s place (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).

“Recent research suggests that we may understand the thoughts, emotions, and sensations of others by simulating them in ourselves as if we were experiencing similar mental states, emotions, or sensations” (Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014, p. 337).

When we are experiencing pain, the anterior cingulate cortex is active. We also see activation in the same region when we observe someone else receiving a painful experience (Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014).

Such mirror mechanisms seem equally active when we judge others’ actions and when we process their experiences, sensations, and emotions.

While observing such emotional information, the mirror neuron system makes it possible to generate a brain state that matches that of the person being observed, providing an automatic share of their experience (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).

6+ Fascinating Research Findings and Examples

Mirror neurons and autismSome early claims for the mirror neuron system may be exaggerated, as it is unlikely that a single brain mechanism accounts for all aspects of action understanding (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

However, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and psychologists recognize that mirror neurons play an essential part in the process and, therefore, remain keen to better understand their impact and influence on human learning and empathy (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).

Mirror neurons and autism

Research has investigated whether “dysfunctional simulation mechanisms may underlie the social and communicative deficits seen in individuals with autism spectrum disorders” (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2007, p. 310).

Analysis of preliminary findings left it unclear whether mirror neurons were a significant factor in the behavioral and neurological differences seen in those with autism (Oberman & Ramachandran, 2007).

An analysis of more recent research findings offers two suggestions (Khalil et al., 2018).

  1. There is an interaction between the mirror neuron system, action perception, empathy, and imitative behavior that can impact social decision-making.
  2. Mirror neurons may serve as a first layer in understanding and imitating behavior and may be impaired in those with an autism spectrum disorder.

While some researchers propose that future research into mirror neurons will clarify how “pharmacological, neurostimulation, or psychotherapeutic treatment approaches” can “support tailored psychiatric interventions” (Khalil et al., 2018, p. 675) in clients with autism spectrum disorders, others remain doubtful whether any clear connection will be forthcoming (Heyes & Catmur, 2021).

Trauma and mirror neurons

Mirror neurons appear to be a vital element of our cognition and social interaction, but how they are involved in processing and reliving traumatic experiences remains unclear (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022; Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014).

  • Gaensbauer (2011) investigated whether mirror neurons could be involved in young children’s post-traumatic reenactment behaviors.

While little data was available at the time, the study concluded that mirror neurons might mediate deeply embedded patterns of reenactment behavior that follow trauma (Gaensbauer, 2011).

  • Since then, researchers have suggested that mirror neurons play a part in how and why therapists develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder similar to those of their clients.

It appears that mental health professionals are, very literally, experiencing some of the same emotions as their clients (Rasmussen & Bliss, 2014).

The exact function of mirror neurons in trauma remains unclear and offers new avenues for research into the brain’s mechanisms engaged in the adverse effects of traumatic events (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).

The role of mirror neurons in learning

“Observing and visualizing support learning because the brain automatically responds to these types of stimulation” (Woolfolk, 2021, p. 328).

While the exact influence of mirror neurons on learning remains unclear, many researchers suggest they play an essential role in associative learning, making connections between stimuli and responses, and forming associations that influence behavior (Cook et al., 2014; Heyes & Catmur, 2021).

  • Cook et al. (2014) suggest mirror neurons serve as generalized processes in associative learning rather than having a specific evolutionary purpose or adaptive function.
  • Heyes and Catmur (2021) agree that mirror neurons are domain-general but also highlight the importance of the nature (or subject) of learning.

For example, dancers observing other dancers experience more activity in associated mirror neurons than non-dancers.

Having previously experienced the same or similar dance moves as the individual observed strengthens the learning effect in the observer (Heyes & Catmur, 2021).

Neuroscience studies suggest that mirror neurons likely contribute to complex control systems involved in learning rather than acting alone (Heyes & Catmur, 2021).

Emotion Theories and Mirror Neurons

To thrive as humans in a social world, we must be capable of the following (Ferrari & Coudé, 2018):

  • Understanding what others are doing within our group
  • Empathizing with how they feel
  • Grasping their intentions

Such emotional and cognitive awareness is based on complex, multidimensional action–perception mechanisms that appear widespread among primates.

As such, many neuroscience researchers believe that a psychobiological theoretical comprehension of mirror neurons can account for affective empathy, involving emotional understanding and resonance (Ferrari & Coudé, 2018).

According to neurobiological research into emotional theory, mirror neurons allow us to process facial expressions and interactions between people. Their function is to enable us to “perceive and understand others’ feelings without words” (Trieu et al., 2019, p. 25).

Such theory, backed up by research, suggests this is particularly apparent in the development of empathy in children.

It means that because we share the same underlying neural structures and activations, we can be emotionally involved in the experiences of others. Then hormones such as oxytocin kick in to regulate (or even enhance) these empathic processes (Trieu et al., 2019).

3 Books on Mirror Neurons and the Brain

With new techniques and technology, our understanding of the human brain continues to evolve. Identifying the vital elements involved in learning and connecting with others offers deep insights into how we function as social beings.

1. New Frontiers in Mirror Neuron Research – Pier Francesco Ferrari and Giacomo Rizzolatti

New Frontiers in Mirror Neuron Research

The discovery of mirror neurons has undoubtedly increased and challenged our understanding of the human brain and our capacity to learn and empathize.

This exciting book highlights the importance of the plasticity and development of the mirror neuron system and its potential to improve the therapeutic process and promote neurorehabilitation.

Find the book on Amazon.


2. Mirroring Brains: How We Understand Others From the Inside – Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia

Mirroring Brains

In this intriguing book, three of the foremost researchers into mirror neurons, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia, and Frances Andersen, offer new insights into their properties and functions.

An essential read for neuroscientists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and sociologists, the text provides a deeper appreciation for how we relate to one another, along with digging into the concept of “understanding from the inside.”

Find the book on Amazon.


3. Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience – Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia

Mirrors in the Brain

Written by the same authors, this earlier book is equally vital. Learn how Rizzolatti and colleagues at the University of Parma discovered the unexpected properties of a previously unknown set of brain cells: mirror neurons.

Join the authors to share in the excitement of one of the most groundbreaking advances in neuroscience of the past 50 years.

Find the book on Amazon.

We also recommend this list of 15 Must-Read Empathy Books.

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources available for therapists, coaches, and educators to help their clients and students with their learning and empathy, engaging their mirror neuron systems.

Our free resources include:

  • What Is Empathy?
    Designed for children, this valuable worksheet helps children practice and develop their empathy skills by considering their own and others’ emotions.
  • Listening Accurately
    Emotional intelligence and empathy require excellent listening skills. This practical worksheet encourages clients to “walk in the other person’s shoes,” fact-check interpretations, give full attention, and validate feelings.
  • Fostering Empathy Reflectively
    Use this worksheet with clients to improve their understanding of their own and others’ emotions, boosting their empathy.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below.

  • The Wheel of Awareness

The Wheel of Awareness helps clients increase awareness of themselves and others by choosing what they focus on.

Ask the client to take deep, slow, mindful breaths while bringing to mind the image of a wheel and visualizing moving from one quadrant to the next, as follows:

    • Step one: We find the five senses in the first quadrant. Reflect on what you hear, feel, smell, and taste, and your sense of touch.
    • Step two: In the next quadrant, pay attention to your inner bodily sensations, mentally scanning from head to toe.
    • Step three: Visiting the third quadrant, turn your attention to your emotions, thoughts, memories, beliefs, hopes, etc. Do they come and go, or are they one long stream of consciousness?
    • Step four: Moving to the final quadrant, consider your connection to others, expanding outward: your family, friends, colleagues, city, country, and the whole world.
  • Practicing Empathic Listening
    Empathy is a skill, and as such, it can be improved with practice, potentially deepening the empathic relationship between client and therapist.

Place participants (clients or mental health professionals) in pairs to practice both talking and listening.

Taking turns, the speaker talks for 90 seconds about what is important to their lives right now.

Ask the listener to engage in the following two skills to improve their empathy:

    • Step one: Reflect back feelings you have heard, labeling them.

For example:

“You feel upset.”
“You are worried.”

    • Step two: Practice paraphrasing what the other person has said.

Use their words where possible and capture their core content and emotions to confirm your active listening, show they are heard, and encourage deeper exploration and engagement.

Ask each participant what it was like to listen and offer empathic feedback, and what it was like to talk and be heard, knowing the other was paying close attention.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

A Take-Home Message

The discovery of mirror neurons significantly impacted our understanding of how we learn and develop empathy for those around us.

While there is still much to uncover regarding their function and properties, neurological studies suggest that these particular neurons activate whether we observe behavior in others or engage in the activity ourselves (Penagos-Corzo et al., 2022).

However, there are limits. While we cannot learn everything from watching alone, our capacity to imitate and comprehend others’ activities is vital to learning new skills, acquiring knowledge, and building empathy, particularly for young children (Trieu et al., 2019).

Neuroscience research suggests that our mirror neurons support us in learning the “how” of performing a skill (or set of skills) and the “why” regarding others’ intentions.

As educators, we can help learners by providing opportunities to see others practicing the skills they wish to acquire and then giving them a chance to try them out. In doing so, we can support them in forming deeper, broader, and richer understandings of their subject matter (Woolfolk, 2021).

Research continues across multiple life domains and groups, including those with autism, those who have experienced trauma, and those engaged in learning and education.

Mental health practitioners should recognize that if clients witness positive and constructive behavior, communication, and coping mechanisms, they can emulate that behavior, potentially leading to long-standing change that helps them build flourishing and fulfilling lives.

Knowing more about how our brain helps us connect with new skills, knowledge, and fellow humans can have far-reaching effects, potentially leading to improved communication and learning inside and outside counseling.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Mirror neurons help us emotionally share the experiences of others by enabling us to perceive and understand their feelings without words (Trieu et al., 2019).

Mirror neurons function by allowing us to simulate and understand others’ actions, emotions, and intentions through shared neural structures and activations (Ferrari & Coudé, 2018).

Mirror neurons contribute to empathy by helping us resonate with others’ emotions and experiences. They combine with other biological systems, such as the hormone oxytocin, which can regulate or even enhance empathic processes (Trieu et al., 2019; Ferrari & Coudé, 2018).

Some researchers believe that mirror neurons contribute to our enjoyment and participation in music, “hijacking the simulation mechanism of the brain” (Matyja, 2015, p. 1). In doing so, we experience a more physical (or embodied experience) of the musical piece.

Yawning is an example of what psychologists call “emotional contagion.” It reflects our brain’s inclination to synchronize with others through our mirror neurons, potentially boosting group cohesion and social bonding (Ferrari & Coudé, 2018).

  • Acharya, S., & Shukla, S. (2012). Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain. Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine, 3(2), 118–118.
  • Cook, R., Bird, G., Catmur, C., Press, C., & Heyes, C. (2014). Mirror neurons: From origin to function. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(2), 177–192.
  • Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook. Psychology Press.
  • Ferrari, P. F., & Coudé, G. (2018). Mirror neurons, embodied emotions, and empathy. In K. Z. Meyza & E. Knapska (Eds.), Neuronal correlates of empathy: From rodent to human (pp. 67–77). Elsevier Academic Press.
  • Gaensbauer, J. T. (2011). Embodied simulation, mirror neurons, and the reenactment of trauma in early childhood. Neuro-Psychoanalysis, 13(1), 91–107.
  • Heyes, C., & Catmur, C. (2021). What happened to mirror neurons? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(1), 153–168.
  • Khalil, R., Tindle, R., Boraud, T., Moustafa, A. A., & Karim, A. A. (2018). Social decision making in autism: On the impact of mirror neurons, motor control, and imitative behaviors. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 24(8), 669–676.
  • Matyja, J. R. (2015). The next step: Mirror neurons, music, and mechanistic explanation. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
  • Oberman, L. M., & Ramachandran, V. S. (2007). The simulating social mind: The role of the mirror neuron system and simulation in the social and communicative deficits of autism spectrum disorders. Psychological Bulletin, 133(2), 310–327.
  • Penagos-Corzo, J. C., Cosio van-Hasselt, M., Escobar, D., Vázquez-Roque, R. A., & Flores, G. (2022). Mirror neurons and empathy-related regions in psychopathy: Systematic review, meta-analysis, and a working model. Social Neuroscience, 17(5), 462–479.
  • Rasmussen, B., & Bliss, S. (2014). Beneath the surface: An exploration of neurobiological alterations in therapists working with trauma. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 84(2º3), 332–349.
  • Rizzolatti, G., & Fabbri-Destro, M. (2010). Mirror neurons: From discovery to autism. Experimental Brain Research, 200(3–4), 223–237.
  • Trieu, M., Foster, A. E., Yaseen, Z. S., Beaubian, C., & Calati, R. (2019). Neurobiology of empathy. In A. E. Foster & Z. S. Yaseen (Eds.), Teaching empathy in healthcare (pp. 17–39). Springer.
  • Wilson, C. (2014, February 4). Brain zapping makes role of mirror neurons clearer. New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25002-brain-zapping-makes-role-of-mirror-neurons-clearer/.
  • Woolfolk, A. (2021). Educational psychology. Pearson.
Comments

What our readers think

  1. Jeff M

    Over my head, but did find many connections that prove it well enough for me. My small offering is a small part, about music, what music to use in your tests. Often seen happening but once verbally stated by Paul McCartney at a concert, the phones all lite up when a familiar song came on, but dimmed when a new song was played, new songs might limit your findings. Up music is often our fav. Also on music, watch the movie Soul by Disney (movie writers are also keen on the human equation), it has a small part on this, it’s that place a musician goes to. Reminds me of watching Herbie Hancock and his band as well as Al DiMeola (back in the early 80s, voted best jazz guitarist for 5 years then) where they connected with mirror neurons and went off into a zone of creativity together, and I mean one with different instruments but similar creative connection and type of music. Al DiMeola as an example, with Airto Moreira and Phil Markowitz played a song at a concert I was at (in 1984, and only 200 people filled the room) where you could see them share this music in the zone, where they played a “song”? for 25 minutes, the creativity was seemingly unlimited with their mirror connection, each feeding on the other, it was the most amazing performance I have ever seen. They apologized for such an extended song but the crowd, crying and cheering, no way guys, that was a cherished moment in time you just gave us! I played the guitar and it too did that to me but only with one other who want to connect and create, no perform ;-), but I am no professional LOL. I think along these lines, more results could be found, at least I hope so.

    Fascinating work you are doing here, and I believe in the sciences!!!

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