Empathy and mirror neurons

Empathy and mirror neurons

The next time we are with someone watching a movie or a television show we will look at his face. We will observe if when the actor or the presenter laughs, our companion smiles involuntarily. We will observe if when he appears on television, our companion also puts his face seriously. If we are observant enough, we can also do it with ourselves. We may be surprised that without realizing it, we adopt the same gesture of that person in front of us. What is happening? Empathy and mirror neurons take action.


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As defined by Anna Carpena (2016), empathy "It is the ability to capture what another thinks and needs and the sincere connection with your feeling as if it were your own - although it is not the same as one would think or feel in the same situation - feeling at the same time the desire to comfort and help ". It is important to emphasize that in empathy the suffering is not transmitted, that is, we can know what the other person feels, but without being 100% in their shoes. The same goes for joy. In general, empathy is usually associated with negative emotions, but it is also experienced with positive emotions.

On the other hand, it should be noted that There are two types of empathy: cognitive and emotional. Each one corresponds to different brain circuits. Cognitive empathy consists of know what you think and know what the other person feels. Emotional empathy helps us to feel what others feel. The difference enters over and over, is that with the cognitive we can know if someone is sad or cheerful; and with the emotional we can put ourselves in his place.

Both one empathy and the other arise from the base or primal empathy. Which is this? The simplest of all, when we get a laugh, a cry, a yawn, etc. Through this type of contagion, you can know that Empathy is something innate in the human being. However, it is necessary to continue developing it throughout life. Young children show signs of empathy. In adolescence this empathy descends in favor of self-centeredness and at the beginning of early adulthood it reappears.

Mirror neurons

Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered in 1996 mirror neurons. Rizzolatti and his team realized that when some macaques watched another macaque making a move, the same neurons were activated. How was it possible that the same neurons of those who did a movement were activated in the macaque that did not move? The answer was in mirror neurons.

As Anna Carpena (2016) highlights, "The human brain has multiple systems of mirror neurons specialized not only in the reproduction of the actions we observe in others (or having the impulse to do so) but in the understanding of their emotions and their intentions and the meaning of their behavior". Mirror neurons allow us to connect with another person's mind through identification, that is, through emotion rather than thought.

Rizzolatti states that when we observe someone carrying out an action, their movements, whether we like it or not, have an effect on us. With imagining an action, our mind is predisposed to perform it, another thing is whether we carry it out or not. Mirror neurons are spread throughout the brain, especially in areas of the social brain that have connections with emotional regions.

Empathy and mirror neurons

Throughout the article it has been possible to see how mirror neurons help us to represent in our mind both movements and emotions of others. Thanks to this we can put ourselves in the place of another person. It is a "standard equipment" that we carry since we were born, however, we must not forget our emotional education. Through a correct emotional education we can develop the necessary empathy so as not to harm other people or ourselves. Because empathy is not only towards others, but towards ourselves.

How can we develop empathy towards us? A technique that is usually carried out is through visualization. We look at each other in five years and wonder how we would like our life to be and how it will be if we do nothing. For example, we can imagine what our life will be like if we don't stop smoking or stop carrying out any activity that harms us. In this way, we can be aware that what we do in the present, we will collect in the future.

Mirror neurons have proven to be one of the most amazing discoveries of recent times. Empathy and mirror neurons still have a long history in scientific research. But thanks to the research that has been developed so far, different nuances of human behavior have been explained, which until now could only be assumed. Definitely, This discovery will help us realize that by being made to empathize with others, the ideal is to develop our compassion for others. instead of rivalry.


Carpena, A. (2016). Empathy is possible. Bilbao: Desclée