Empathy and the Amazing Mirror Neurons

In Born for Love, Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry explain that we are born with foundational skills that allow us to learn empathy. Babies have the ability to imitate facial expressions, and they have an automatic response of crying when other babies cry. These two skills probably engage a cluster of brain cells called "mirror neurons." 

The study of mirror neurons is still young, but it has already given us some insight into human behavior in social settings. As Szalavitz and Perry describe, "Mirror neurons fire when you do something - but more important, they also fire in a less intense fashion when you see someone else do the same thing." Neuroscience researchers from the UK explain that mirror neurons fire in the person doing the action, and they fire also in the person observing the action. Whether you are doing something or whether you are watching it being done, the mirror neurons are active. 

So how does the study of mirror neurons help us understand the development of empathy? We learn empathy by watching others show empathy. It is a compassionate response, an act of kindness that fires the mirror neurons. 

Here is an example: A young man sees an elderly woman struggling to get her groceries into the car. He sees her struggle and begins to feel empathy toward her situation. As he goes to her and assists her, his mirror neurons are activated. The brain is responding to his compassionate actions. Amazingly, the mirror neurons of anyone witnessing the exchange also responds, although to a lesser degree. The woman herself experiences an emotional and cognitive response. So, in an act of kindness the person who comes to another's assistance and anyone witnessing the situation experiences the same empathetic cognitive response. Again, mirror neurons respond to action or by observing action. 

As neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese explains, "It seems we're wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different,,,As humans we identify the person we're facing as someone like ourselves." When our children see us in situations where we are helping, comforting, and supporting, their mirror neurons fire, and they begin to understand what it feels like to be there for someone else. By our acts of compassion, we are helping our children develop empathy. 

“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or 
perceive a sense of his own worth 
until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of 
another loving, caring human being.” 


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