Mirror Neurons in Empathy

I was getting worried that I wouldn’t be able to come up with a topic to write about for this month’s blog post. However, I figured it out as Professor Rettinger talked about mirror neurons and empathy in the last 5 minutes of last Thursday’s lecture. So without further ado, here is a meme of my good friend Jimmy Fallon.

*Fun fact this is actually a photo my grandpa took of Jimmy (with his permission… kinda) at the Steelers vs. the Cardinals Super Bowl in 2009. Where he actually saw and got a photo of Jimmy Fallon as well as Rain Wilson (Dwight Schrute from The Office)*

ANYWAYS! Back to mirror neurons, empathy and cognitive psychology. As Professor Rettinger stated “Mirror neurons are neurons that tend to be active in watching either perceptual or motor activity of another person.” He stated that we tend to have mirror neuron responses to specific neural activity. Professor Rettinger gave an example about how his hand hurts each time he watches Luke Skywalker’s hand get chopped off while watching Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back. Towards the end of his lecture he briefly talked about how we as humans have the ability to empathize with others. We are able to understand how another person is feeling in a literal sense because we can mirror that feeling based on their responses. Therefore, this was what I wanted to conduct a bit more research on!

I read an article from Lesley University that stated the official definition of empathy, “Empathy is a broad concept that refers to the cognitive and emotional reactions of an individual to the observed experiences of another.” (Lesley University). In the case of empathy, mirror neurons fire when humans observe and experience emotion. For instance, when I see my mother’s eyes start to get watery, just like her eyes, my eyes begin to fill up with tears. With a bit of time we both end of crying. My mirror neurons fired when they detected the feeling my mom was having, and because of the love and compassion I have for my mom, I ended up empathizing her emotions and feelings with her.

One thing I learned upon reading this article is that there is actually two types of empathy. Emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy refers to feeling the same emotion as another, one’s feelings of distress in response to feeling the emotion of another, and feeling compassion for another. Cognitive empathy on the other hand refers to how someone can perceive and understand emotions of another person. Cognitive empathy relates more closely with cognitive psychology where a person has more complete and accurate knowledge regarding the contents of someone else’s mind.

I have a good friend who is capable of showing the most empathy I have ever seen. She pretty much cries because of anything whether it’s because of a show, a movie, witnessing a friend cry, even being encouraged makes her cry! She’s just full of empathy! I’ve noticed how there are many people out there who thing empathetic people are just emotional crybabies. However, after reading this article, there are definitely lots of positive benefits of having such high amounts of empathy. Having this much empathy simply shows that this person has a lot of compassion towards others, and truly desires helping others. An interesting point from this article stated that empathy is a key factor in successful relationships because it helps better understand the perspective, intentions, and needs of others. People who have high levels of empathy are much more likely to function well in society. Luckily for my friend, she does great in large crowds of people and she has rarely any fights with any of her friends. She proves that she is a wonderful caring, compassionate person, full of empathy. Where she is so in touch with her mirror neurons, for she can show empathy to anyone, anywhere, anytime!

Challenge: Next time you witness a friend, peer, family member, stranger, or raccoon having a hard time. Try to empathize with them and think about the process your mind went through to get there. Ask yourself the following questions:

What exactly triggered your mirror neurons to fire? Are you emitting cognitive empathy or emotional empathy? How can you view this situation in this person (or animal’s) shoes?

It’s quite fascinating!