Mirroring People: The Role of Mirror Neurons in Empathy

Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD, UCLA

Mirror neurons are cells originally discovered in the monkey brain. They fire when the animal performs a goal-oriented action and when it sees somebody else performing the same action. Brain imaging studies have revealed human brain areas with similar physiological properties. Studies on observation and imitation of facial emotional expressions suggest that human mirror neuron areas are concerned with the simulation or inner imitation of observed facial emotional expressions. The neural interactions between mirror neurons and more classical brain areas concerned with emotions allow the understanding of other people’s emotion at a pre-reflective, automatic level. This large scale neural circuit for mirroring make humans ‘wired for empathy‘. Even though these neural mechanisms facilitate empathy mostly at a pre-reflective level, the activity measured in laboratory tasks in this neural circuit correlates with the empathic predisposition of subjects. This suggests that this large scale neural network comprising the human mirror neuron system and emotional brain centers may be considered a bio-marker for empathy and more in general for sociality.

The 2007 Conference