Written by Matthew Garrett on December 1, 2012 in Neuroscience
“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” -Herman Melville
Connection. It's the most basic concept. Nothing exists wholly apart from the rest. So have you ever wondered what helps you to connect with other people, activities, and emotions? What enables you to walk a mile in their shoes?
Most of you would answer "empathy," the simple innate ability to "know what it's like," to actually understand. But what is it really? How does it work, and where does it come from?
The biological basis for empathy lies, like all emotions, in the brain. It might be more appropriate to substitute "synaptic" in lieu of "sympathetic" in Melville's aforementioned quote, as empathy goes all the way down to the molecular level, generated by special brain cells nicknamed mirror neurons. These neurons were originally referred to as "monkey see, monkey do" neurons after their discovery by a team of researchers at the University of Parma, Italy.
The experiment was originally designed to test the neural representation of motor control in primates, but an unexpected discovery changed everything. The researchers began observing an interesting phenomenon when experimenting with the monkey. The goal of the experiment was to have the monkey grasp a peanut, and the EEG (electroencephalogram) was to record the neural activity in the primate's brain. The strange finding, however, was that when the researchers grasped the peanut while the monkey was watching, those same neurons fired again! The team had discovered that the same parts of the brain were activated both when the monkey performed the action, and when it observed the same action.
This was a fascinating discovery, providing evidence for the cognitive concept known as observational learning. Scientists now knew that the brain can simulate a physiological action in a psychological form. When you see someone perform a familiar action, your brain actually thinks that you're doing it too! So yes, these neurons redefine the notion of an "armchair quarterback" or even a "backseat driver."
This bio-psychological phenomenon serves a vital role in social relationships. These neurons provide a true connection between vision and action, seeing and doing, experiencing and feeling. These brain cells are empathy. The reason you are so invested in your favorite football team's games? Mirror neurons. The explanation for why people watch great athletes to improve their own performance? Mirror neurons. The cause for your ability to truly relate to other peoples circumstances and feelings? Mirror neurons!
The clinical applications of mirror neurons are profound. Already, major advances in the treatment of damaged motor function and neurological pain have improved the therapy. Take renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran for example. As a neurologist in San Diego, he has seen many patients with curious ghost pains and disorders related to the brain-motor impulses. One of the most fascinating afflictions that he has enc0untered, however, is that of phantom limbs, where the patient stills experiences feeling in an amputated appendage. Up until the discovery of mirror neurons, the treatment of this haunting pain was limited in its scope. After their discovery, though, the treatment has greatly improved, yielding more success and also decreasing in cost. Ramachandran, using mirror neurons as the focus of his treatment, sought to trick the brain into believing that the limb was whole again. The pain experienced by those suffering from phantom limbs is that of a perpetually clenched fist, or a continually contracted muscle. By tricking the patient into seeing their limb whole again, he wanted to train the brain to release the tension in the muscle and unlearn the painful synaptic pathways that have formed.
Ramachandran accomplished this feat with a simple mirror and a box. The patient needed only the stick the normal arm into a hole in the box, and focus on the mirror that showed the reflection. With the amputated side covered, the brain visually process the limb as being attached to the body. The patient would then spend hours practicing clenching their fist, gradually easing the pain in their phantom limb. Through observational learning, the brain was able to unlearn the pain that it was experiencing. The patient saw the phantom hand as opening and closing, so the mirror neurons allowed the mind to experience the action as actually occurring.
So next you tell someone, "I've been there, too. I know how you feel." You're not just talking about a past experience, you're experiencing it again, right there with them...in your mind.
"MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution"
By V.S. Ramachandran
Interview with Dr. Rizzolatti from the Parma lab: http://gocognitive.net/interviews/discovery-mirror-neurons-1