Mirror neurons and empathy
Professor Christian Keysers explains that because mirror neurons activate when we witness other people's actions and emotions, they may play an important role in feelings of empathy.
Empathy is the capacity to feel and share states with other people. So we all know for instance that if we are watching a baseball fan watch his favorite player just about to hit the ball, very often the fan will have little movements in his body. Or if I remember seeing my wife cooking together with me, cutting onions, and I was distracting her, and at some point she was stopping to just cut the onion and was cutting into her own finger. And the pain we feel in our own finger while we see someone else cutting their finger is what we normally call empathy in our discipline, really the sharing of something that happens in someone else. Now the reason we believe that mirror neurons are really important for that are twofold; on the one hand mirror neurons per se activate motor programs or emotions when we see them in other people, which of course makes it very intuitive that they would play a role in this kind of feeling what the other person feels. But what is even more striking is that if I would take 10 people and ask them for instance the question whether they get very involved with characters in novels (whether they are very empathic), I could then take them and put them in the scanner, show them someone else cutting their finger and what I would see is the people that reported that they get very empathic in everyday life, very involved with other peopleâ€™s characters, will actually activate these mirror areas more strongly than people that in everyday life are less empathic. So this is why we believe that empathy is very strongly linked with mirror neurons.
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