Empathy: of monkeys, mirrors and men


Image courtesy of ELIZABETH PORTER

Monkey see, monkey do

It’s a simple game. With one kid from the group out of the room, the rest choose a “monkey”.

The rest of the group  has to do exactly as the monkey does. If she bounces on her hands, so do they. If she scratches her nose, so do they. Hence, monkey see, monkey do.

The goal for the kid returning to the room is to guess which of the group is the monkey, when all of the group are doing the same thing. The monkey’s goal is to not get caught changing actions! If they are caught, they have to guess in the next round.

It’s a simple kids’ game.

But get this…

If we were to scan the brains of these kids, guesser included, we’d notice something extraordinary. So extraordinary, some call it a game-changing discovery. Brain guru V.S. Ramachandran says this is for psychology and brain science what DNA was for biology. Some say the implications are more far-reaching than we can imagine.

Real life monkey see, monkey do

20 years ago, in the early 1990s, Italian researchers made what was a remarkable discovery.

Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues* were studying the brain activity for different motor, or movement, skills, in macaque monkeys. (They’re a favorite for researchers; you say it ma-kark.) 

But on this day, as the researcher reached for his own lunch, he noticed neurons (brain cells) firing in the monkey brain. By itself, this is no big deal, because lots of brain cells are like this. Some brain cells respond to sound, some to light, some to angles and edges and so on.

But in this monkey brain, neurons were firing in the same ares that were activated when the animal reached for lunch. Except this animal wasn’t doing anything! How could it look like it was reaching for food, when all it was doing was watching someone else reach for food??

What was so special about these neurons, is that they showed a pattern of activation as if they were doing the same task!! Monkey see, monkey do. At least in brain cells.

To the casual brain pattern activation observer, it really looked as if the watching monkey was engaged in the same task as the doing monkey. Although monkey see, monkey do neurons is a cute name, they came to be called mirror neurons, because the watching monkey’s brain activity pattern mirrored the doing monkey’s.

This led to all kinds of speculation about what they might do, and how, and why. And, mouthwateringly, the question of whether humans might have them too…

Human see, human do?

We suspected we had them and, in time, found evidence of the general areas but, last year, gotcha! Right down to the very brain cells.

Researchers discovered mirror neurons in people, generating exactly the same kind of as if response the macaques got when watching someone else.

So the kid guessing, but not doing, would show the same brain pattern activation as all the kids doing.

Watching them yourself

Next time you’re watching other people doing things, you’ll see these guys in action. Live sport is best.

Ever wondered why, when the wide receiver needs to swerve to avoid a tackle, people in the crowd swerve with him? Or when someone really is tackled, why we flinch just on impact, ready to take the hit ourselves, or stretch to help the guy in deep left field catch the winning out, or lean into the Federer forehand with him?

Naturally, you know already. Because in your own brain, mirror neurons are firing, busily giving you the as ifs. 

And this is what’s significant for us.

Mirror neurons and emotional intelligence

In our last post we talked about emotional intelligence, and filled in the framework of how it looks. Mirror neurons give us the physiology and machinery behind a chunk of emotional intelligence, because they help explain key aspects of it.

In addition to mirroring physical activities, they also mirror, among other things emotional activities, emotional expression and pain. When you see someone else in pain, your mirror neurons and pain recognition neurons light up. See someone disgusted at something, and your brain registers the same. See someone passionately sad, and feel their pain? Your brain lights up in all the same places as theirs.

Even though, for all three examples, you’re not doing, but watching. It’s the as if feeling writ large in your own neural hardware.

And the power of understanding another’s feelings, as if you were walking in their shoes, what we call empathy,  is a crucial component of emotional intelligence . Developing empathy is a good indicator of strong emotional intelligence and the ability to work well with other people.

So here’s the take home bit

This is where it gets really good for us. While empathy is broadly understood, we need to get our heads around the specifics of what it really is.

Mirror neurons are a pivotal piece of the puzzle. You know how to see them in action, but for genuine empathy we also need the ability to understand how someone else is thinking – their cognitions – and then to actually care. All of which, together, raise interesting parenting questions, like this one: If my kid has deficient mirror neurons will he be a psychopath?

Can I develop empathy myself, or in my kids? How might I do it?

Which we’ll come to next time.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Mirror neurons

What do you think?

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*Giacomo RizzolattiGiuseppe Di PellegrinoLuciano Fadiga, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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3 Responses to Empathy: of monkeys, mirrors and men

  1. Beulah says:

    So what’s gone wrong when people don’t have that empathy? Is it a case of desensitization? Seeing too much trauma in a visual entertainment form (not real life) and the brain having too much, so shutting down the normal response we ought to feel? Be interested to hear what you think about this Brendon

    • Hi Beulah

      Without stealing too much from the next coiuple of posts :-)… Underdeveloped, low numbers, or faulty mirror neurons are implicated in lack of empathy, particularly along the autistic spectrum where the ability to read social information isn’t great. Other pathology is relevant here too. That’s the nature bit.

      Then, as you note, there’s the nurture side of the argument. Short answer – yes. Exposure to real violence etc tends to affect people differently from exposure to media violence etc. For media, yes, long-term exposure to media violence etc tends to increase hostility and aggrerssion and reduce empathy, and does so, I believe, in males and females. Yes, the normal response becomes dampened because we call it entertainment, rationalizing away the problem.

  2. Pingback: Interesting Discoveries About the Brain (3) « creatingreciprocity

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