Why (and How) We Truly Care About Others – the Amazing Mirror Neurons

By Shlomo  Maital

          mirror neurons

       One day, an Italian neurophysiologist named Giacomo Rizzolatti, Parma University,  will win the Nobel Prize for his amazing discovery of mirror neurons.

  Here is what he found, by accident, like so many great discoveries, and why it is important.

   Rizzolatti and colleagues were studying the nerve cells that controlled hand movements and seizing of objects. 

    The research was very monotonous, as it required the researchers to follow neuron patterns in the brains of macaque monkeys, who were holding peanuts and bringing them to their mouths.  As the monkeys moved their hands, the nerve cells in their brains that controlled the movement fired electrical impulses, which could be seen in the electroencephalogram printout. 

     At one point, one of the researchers picked up a peanut.  He was amazed to see that the same neurons activated in the monkey’s brain, when the monkey itself picked up the peanut, were fired when the monkey saw someone ELSE pick up a peanut.  It was an astonishing finding. How could a neuron, responsible for hand movements, fire when the hand did not move, but someone else’s hand moved? 

   The researchers realized they had stumbled on a revolutionary finding.  The brain possesses unique cells that respond to an animal’s own movements, but also to the SAME movement when performed by other animals.  How come the monkey’s own hand did not move, when the neuron fired? Because other neurons inhibited motor ‘imitation’.  Mirror cells only SENSE the motion, they do not initiate the same motion.

    Humans too have mirror cells, we now know.  This enables us to feel empathy, and to be social animals, to cooperate, to help, to be a team member.  Probably, those mirror cells were created by evolution – humans possessing them were better equipped to survive and procreate than those who lacked them.  And soon, all humans had them.

    Some neurophysiologists deny there are such things as mirror cells. But there are, and they do exist.  They explain much of our human-ness. 

    Some selfish people ignore what their mirror cells tell them; they broadcast very quietly.  But some people increase their sensitivity to the ‘firing’ of mirror cells and become exceedingly caring empathic people.   And since empathy is a key part of innovation, my theory is that great innovators have heightened sensitivity to what their mirror cells tell them about what other people feel and need.

    Kudos, handshakes, to Rizzolatti and the other researchers who refused to say, nuts! to a remarkable, perhaps impossible, observation.  They deserve the Nobel.