Empathy and the Myth of Mirror Neurons

The word empathy is derived from the Greek word empatheia (from em- 'in' + pathos 'feeling') and the Oxford English Dictionary defines its meaning as: 'The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.'

The definition is interesting as it suggests that for empathy to exist, it is not sufficient to simply understand how another person is feeling, you must be capable of sharing those feelings also. But since it is impossible to know with any certainty what another person is feeling at any point in time, how can you be certain that your feelings are similar to theirs?

In the late 1980s a group of Italian neuroscientists were conducting experiments on macaque monkeys to further their understanding of the operation of neurons in the premotor cortex - the part of the brain used for controlling physical actions when grasping and picking up an object. Because the monkeys were 'wired up' between experiments as well as during them they chanced upon a curious finding, namely that the same neurons in the premotor cortex 'fired' between the experiments when the monkeys saw a lab assistant pick up the object as did when the monkey itself picked up the object.

The team published a short paper on their findings in 1992 (Understanding Motor Events, 1992, di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, Agllese & Rizzolatti) in which they proposed an explanation for their findings. They concluded that observed actions caused the brain to mimic the state of actual actions in order that the observers could better understand the actions of others. In other words, they were suggesting that the brain has a mechanism for empathetic feelings, for enabling one brain to mirror the state of another.

By 1996 the same researchers had conducted further experiments and believed that they had found a specific type of brain cell that was responsible for empathy called a 'mirror neuron'.

If correct, this finding was fantastic as it implied that a monkey would be capable of not only interpreting the action of another monkey, but also its intention. For example, when a monkey reaches for an object it clearly understands its intentions - it knows what it is doing and why. What other monkeys want to know is whether that monkey is simply picking up an object or whether it is trying to steal their food? Mirror neurons provide a simple answer as the theory suggests that they mimic the neurological state of the first monkey thereby creating a similar state in the other monkeys that enable them to accurately interpret their intentions.

Despite the fact that the experiments were conducted on monkeys using invasive brain probes that cannot be used on humans, many in the neuroscientific community were sufficiently convinced and adopted mirror neurons as an established fact in human brains. No lesser publication than the New York Times published an article in 2006 which stated:

"The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions" (New York Times 10/1/2006)

During the following years the concept of mirror neurons have developed a life of their own with thousands of papers being written about how they explain everything from lip reading and contagious yawning to obesity and effective leadership.

Unfortunately, although mirror neurons provide a convenient way of explaining many things, there appear to be many problems with the arguments that suggest they exist. For example, if your brain was programmed to mimic the state of an action, this would be a hindrance if you needed to take a different evasive action. Consider a situation where someone is about to punch you in the face - what you need to do is to duck, not consider what it feels like to hit someone in the face.

If you want to understand more about the case for and against mirror neurons, Gregory Hickok provides an excellent critique of this mythical class of cells in his book 'The Myth of Mirror Neurons'.

But if mirror neurons don't exist, how do we explain empathy?

My personal view is that we don't need mirror neurons to explain empathy, in fact I cannot see a good reason why such a class of specialised neurons should exist at all when virtually the whole of the human mind and body is designed around emotional states.

Let's begin by first considering the question: What constitutes an 'emotional state'? If you ask that question of a neuroscientist they will probably begin with an explanation of the role played by the amygdala, a region in the centre of the limbic system in the lower part of the brain above the brain stem. However, the amygdala only affects our mood based on the chemical messages it receives from other parts of the body. For example endorphins are a class of neurotransmitter that can be found in the pituitary gland, in other parts of the brain, or distributed throughout the nervous system. If we experience pain endorphins are released that react with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce the sensation of pain in exactly the same way as morphine would if administered by a doctor. Endorphins also make us feel happy and it is known that endorphin production can increase when we eat chocolate, engage in exercise or make love.

Our minds and bodies are therefore interlinked. Try this simple experiment to prove it to yourself. Be an actor for a moment and act miserable. To do this stand up, slouch your shoulders, put a miserable look on your face, hang your head and think miserable depressing thoughts. Now try to retain that frame of mind while straightening your back and making yourself as tall as possible while pushing your chest out and your shoulders back. Without doing anything else other than change your posture you will feel your mood 'lighten'. It is hard to feel miserable while 'standing tall'.

Physiology therefore affects mood and it is interesting that when you see two people engrossed in agreeable conversation their body shapes will often mimic one another - if one leans forward the other may do the same, if one straightens their back the other may do likewise. Psychologists call this subconscious mimicry 'mirroring', and have explained its existence as a means of building rapport. However, as our physiology affects our mood it may also be a means by which we create greater levels of empathy.

Have a look at the picture on the right and think, if you were asked to rate the level of empathy portrayed in this picture between the two people how would you rate it - low, medium or high?

My guess is that you would rate it 'high', by why? If you are like me then it would be because both of the people are smiling - presumably for a common reason. The leady on the left has crouched down to be at the same level as the person on the right. The lady on the left is gently touching the arm of the lady on the right.

In short, we are perceiving empathy as a result of the body language and the facial expressions. If we could overhear their conversation it would most likely reinforce this conclusion. If the theory of mirror neurons is correct, then physically 'mirroring' another person is not necessary as our brains automatically recreate the impression of physical mimicry without the need to act it out in practice. Yet if we were to change the picture such that the lady on the left was standing upright, looking in a different direction and not smiling, my guess is that you would have rated the degree of empathy as 'low'. Since we are all humans and all highly adept at 'reading' other people, this example alone would appear sufficient to suggest that there is something highly suspect with the mirror neuron theory.

My final problem with the mirror neuron theory is that it implies that we are 'calculating' emotional states from first principles each and every time we witness a gesture or movement by another person. Yet we know that the human brain is more of a memory machine than a computer and that the brain seeks whatever way it can to reduce its computational work whenever possible.

This is why optical illusions fool us as, rather than seeing something as it actually is, we rely on our memory of how we think it should be.

We also know that memories are formed through associations. For example, if I asked you to remember a random sequence of 11 single digit numbers you would most likely find the task difficult, yet I am sure you can recall several telephone numbers of your friends and family. And at the same time as recalling those numbers you will probably form a mental picture of what they look like.

If you were attempting to comfort a friend who was feeling depressed, it is unlikely that you would stand bolt uptight with your head held high as we encouraged you to do earlier. Much more likely that you would adopt the sort of body shape that you last had when you felt fed up or depressed as that would assist you in accessing the memories of how you felt in that circumstance.

Our conclusion is therefore that mirroring is helpful to us in achieving empathy, but that there is no strong case to suggest that mirror neurons exist but rather a case to suggest that the reason similar neurons sometimes fire when we observe a physical act without actually performing it ourselves is because we are accessing the memories of performing similar tasks ourselves. This differs from the theory of mirror neurons in that it allows for the possibility that on occasions our actions may need to differ from those that we observe, such as when we need to duck to avoid a punch.

Published August 2015

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