Thoughts on Mirror Neurons – Why we feel Empathy

Mirror Neurons - Empathy

Have you ever seen someone get hurt by falling, getting knocked down, or by cutting his finger when cooking something? You then probably felt the actual pain of that person or experienced a shiver in your spinal cord. What has actually happened within your body?

When your eyes saw the incident, mirror neurons fired in your brain causing your body to try to replicate the sensation the other person felt. Why?

For a better understanding.

Since we humans live in social circles, our brains adapted throughout eons in ways to be compatible with the others around us. A human relationship requires attention and care from both sides.

That’s why when engaging in a human connection or when observing other people around us, the mirror neurons are ready to fire whenever it’s necessary to create a better reasoning of the situation.

What are mirror neurons?

Sinigaglia and Sparaci (2010) wrote in the Journal of Analytical Psychology that mirror neurons “are a specific class of sensory motor neurons” primarily discovered in 1992 in the ventral pre-motor cortex of monkeys’ brains.

These neurons tend to become activated when someone executes motor acts (such as grabbing food, walking, dancing, etc.) and when a person observes the actions of others.

The first time I found out about mirror neurons was when reading the book of Daniel Goleman called Emotional Intelligence. Daniel began by talking about alexithymics in the chapter dedicated to empathy.

Alexithymic people are those with a mental condition where they cannot express their own feelings and they cannot understand the feelings of others. This is incompatible with long-lasting human relationships.

A very recent study from Yale University which came out just a few days ago (November 4, 2013) talks about adaptive mirroring.

How could a boxer, for example, whose losing opponent shows fatigue, mirror the same feelings? This is when the boxer needs to emotionally disconnect from his opponent.

However, the boxer needs to mirror his opponent’s actions and intentions to be able to punch back. This is when he needs to connect with his opponent. That’s an example of adaptive mirroring and our ability to attach and detach emotionally from the ones with whom we engage in social connections.

Here’s a very explicative video on mirror neurons:

What is empathy?

Conversely to alexithymia, empathy is the ability or the talent (as Goleman likes to say) to decipher the emotional data other people transmit through their tone of voice, body language, silence moments, facial gestures, and other nonverbal cues.

In a study conducted by Nowicki and Duke in 1989, the researchers have tested 101 children to determine their empathy levels. The children who proved to have a certain skill to identify the non-verbal cues of others were the most popular in school and the most emotionally stable, even though their IQs were not the highest.

So, to better understand mirror neurons, we need to understand empathy. To better understand empathy, we need to understand ourselves.

If I introspect and I understand myself, then I will be better suited to recognize other people’s feelings and better help them when they’re in need.

Kelly McGonigal who wrote The Willpower Instinct (another Amazon bestseller) claimed that bad habits and good habits have the same power of spreading.

What does this mean?

Take a look at a relatively closed social circle, such as a group of people who like to party. Most of them drink a lot, most of them like to spend a lot of money, and most of them like to do nothing. The group is empowering itself.

Think that their mirror neurons are constantly firing when they are all together. Their bad habits, such as their drinking habit, will be enforced continuously. This is a vicious circle. The best way to survive is to get out of the circle.

There were periods of my life when I did just as described above. I used to get out each weekend with the same people, in the same places, and doing the same things. Those were two or three full years of constantly building and enforcing bad habits. The worst part is that I perceived everything as normality.

I couldn’t see things from other perspectives because the people around me were thinking and doing the same thing.

Bad social circle? Leave!

I wanted to give you a scientific perspective on the fact that if you’re not having the best time of your life, you can consciously make a change.

1. Observe the people around you.
2. What are their habits? What do they like to do?
3. What are your habits? Can you see some similarities?
4. Your mirror neurons are constantly firing and enforcing the same habits and patterns.
5. Get out of the situation. Leave the group.

As Dale Carnegie said that “The best way to win an argument is to avoid it“, I say that if your social circle has a negative impact on you, then you should find or make other social circles.

Really successful companies are built by really tight successful groups, of which all the members are extraordinary individuals.

To succeed in life is to surround yourself with empowering people who can help you and who you can help to improve.

Reciprocity is key.

If you are surrounded by great people, your mirror neurons will fire and replicate the actions of those individuals. You’ll end up or, better said, build up to be one of them. This is a positive social circle oriented towards success.

I’m really sure that there is at least one person you know who keeps a positive mental attitude. That’s where you should start. Maybe he/she knows another positive person. Or maybe both of you are efficient in finding others to join the group. Figure it out.


Few people have heard of mirror neurons. You are one of them. Now you can see how your social surrounding influences you.

Have you ever thought that your friends can have such a great impact on you? Are they your true friends? Should they really be? Now that you are empowered to make a change, will you do it?

Please let me know your thoughts in the comment sections below.

Later Edit: Some folks suggest that there may have been too much controversy with respect mirror neurons. See another perspective here.


Sinigaglia, C., & Sparaci, L. (2010). Emotions in action through the looking glass. Journal Of Analytical Psychology, 55(1), 3-29.

Aragon, O., Sharer, E., Bargh, J., & Pineda, J. (2013). Modulations of mirroring activity by desire for social connection and relevance of movement. Journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Nowicki, S. & Duke M. (1989). A measure of nonverbal social processing ability in children between the ages of 6 and 10. Paper presented as part of a symposium at the American Psychological Society, Alexandria, VA.

Daniel Goleman – Emotional Intelligence

Kelly McGonigal – The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You can Do to Get more of It.

The Future of Health Now – Transforming Bodies, Minds, and Lives

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10 Responses to Thoughts on Mirror Neurons – Why we feel Empathy

  1. oolichan says:

    Well, you know what …. Microsoft Word is wrong in this case…. the word “us” was jarring to read …. I’d recommend a change to the correct word “we” … Otherwise, this is a truly fascinating article…. in fact, the entire website is fascinating; have bookmarked it and will return.

  2. Anitha says:

    Indeed this is an interesting piece of information.. I got answers to many of my questions.. actually to my short poem which i composed “journey” were in mention that i got the friends who had same character as mine.. but i came to know it the mirror activity which produces it…

  3. Yolanda says:

    It would be interesting if someone could study brain injured; lonely; and/or depressed people and see if they *lack* mirroring techniques, or if by being alone the situation creates it – period! The effects thereof; and how they in turn affect those around them would be interesting and possibly develop a new way to change/cure it!!

    • Chris Chris says:

      Yolanda, I think that we can find an answer to your question if we dig a little deeper into research studies. I’m pretty sure that studies have been made on depressed people. Some of them may not be concluded, while some can.

      I dont think that injured persons lack mirror neurons because these mirror neurons are also involved in movement (as they are located in the pre-motor cortex), so the person would have to seriously be unable to observe and understand what other people are doing when they are moving (for example).

      This is not the case for depressive people. However, mirror neurons could be a good approach to treating such types of conditions. Take a look at this study and let me know what you think:

  4. Yolanda says:

    I am familiar with brain injuries, and stroke. I have developed instinctual self taught techniques that have reawakened and reconnected the left and right brain neuro paths but lack the scientific knowledge to name, or identify the process.
    I would love to discuss this further and perhaps share more discoveries in regards to this experience and your findings.

    • kathy says:

      I suffered brain injury from a brain aneurysm and a stroke on the OR table during the procedure to coil the aneurysm. I am an empath and I feel others pain almost as acutely as they feel pain. that wasn’t damaged by the brain injury but I now suffer with severe depression and anxiety. my brain doesn’t function quite as sharply as it once did but i’m grateful my ability to feel for others wasn’t damaged.

  5. how can i use my mirror Neuron 100’/. to better my life?
    and how can i use it to influence people and everyone that comes around me?

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