Thanks to Rob Carlson for
bringing it my attention.
From the Wall Street Journal --
How Mirror Neurons Help Us to Empathize,
Really Feel Others' Pain
by Sharon Begley
As the argument at the bar grows more heated, you notice that
you're right in the flight path should the ranting man decide
to turn glassware into missiles. You watch tensely as he
clasps and unclasps the tumbler in front of him, and then
suddenly his grip changes. Is he about to take a gulp ... or
fire the glass in your direction?
If you duck just as it sails over your head, you can thank a
cluster of neurons whose existence scientists didn't even know
about a few years ago: mirror neurons.
Their modest name reflects their most obvious function but
hardly does justice to their talents, which neuroscientists
seem to uncover more of every time they look -- from intuiting
other people's intentions to feeling their pain. Literally.
"Mirror neurons promise to do for neuroscience what DNA did
for biology," neurobiologist V.S. Ramachandran of the
University of California, San Diego, has written, explaining
"a host of mental abilities that have remained mysterious."
In 1992, biologists at the University of Parma, Italy, were
probing the brains of macaque monkeys when they made a curious
discovery. It had been known for years that brain cells in the
premotor cortex, the area that plans movements, fire right
before the monkey grasps, manipulates or reaches for something
such as fruit. But it turns out that these specialized neurons
also fire when the monkey sees someone else (monkey or human)
do so. Whether planning a movement or seeing one, mirror
neurons fire the same way: The firing pattern that precedes,
say, the monkey's lifting a raisin to its mouth is identical
to the pattern when it sees someone else doing that.
The human brain has mirror neurons, too, and recently
neuroscientists have been behaving like Egyptologists after
the discovery of the Rosetta Stone: using mirror neurons to
explain a backlog of enigmas.
For one thing, mirror neurons may be how we understand the
intentions of other people, a crucial social skill whether or
not you frequent fight-prone bars. In a new study,
neuroscientists scanned the brains of volunteers while they
watched videos of a hand reaching for a mug. In one clip, the
mug sat in a neat arrangement of teapot, mug, pitcher of milk
and plate of cookies; in another, it sat amid a knocked-over
pitcher, used napkin and cookie crumbs; in a third the mug sat
If the only thing mirror neurons do is fire when they see
someone perform a movement, the volunteers' brains should have
shown the same activity whether the hand was reaching for the
mug as if to drink, in the first scene, to clean up in the
messy scene or with no context. But that's not what happened.
As Marco Iacoboni of UCLA and colleagues report in the March
issue of PLoS Biology, mirror neurons were only a little
active when the hand grasped the lone mug. But they perked up
when the hand reached for the cup as if to drink from it (in
preparty mode) or to wash it (post party).
"This suggests that mirror neurons do not simply recognize
actions but are also involved in decoding people's
intentions," says Prof. Iacoboni. "People seem to have
specific neurons that code the 'why' of some action,
predicting the behavior of others."
And that makes social interactions possible. At the annual
meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science last month, researchers said that because these
neurons fire both when we see someone move as when we move
ourselves, they make equivalent "what others do and feel and
what we do and feel." We do not just see an action; we also
experience what it feels like to someone else.
Mirror neurons "re-create the experience of others within
ourselves," as UCLA's Mark Thompson put it in his AAAS
remarks. They "allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of
another." That makes them the neural basis of empathy.
"To function well with other people, we need to understand
where they're coming from so as not to misread their
intentions," says Regina Pally, a psychotherapist in Los
Angeles and a clinical professor at UCLA. "Mirror neurons are
what let us understand others' emotions." In fact, mirror
neurons in people are connected to the brain's emotion region,
the limbic system: When your mirror neurons fire in a
reflection of someone else's, it triggers empathic emotions.
Mirror neurons also let us feel another person's pain. The
same cortical neurons that process the sense of touch also
fire when you see someone else touched. And a region that
registers disgust that you feel directly also fires when you
see expressions of disgust on others (hence the visceral
wallop of "Fear Factor").
Instead of merely seeing what other people do and feel, said
Christian Keysers of the University of Groningen, the
Netherlands, "we start to feel their actions and sensations in
our own cortex as if we would be doing these actions and
having those sensations."
Except when we don't. In children with autism, "there may be a
deficit in the mirror-neuron system," says Prof. Iacoboni,
which may explain why they are unable to infer the mental
state and intentions of others. Without mirror neurons to
serve as bridges between minds, everyone seems like a cipher.
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Copyright 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.