Mirror neurons: the biological substrate of our empathy
These are the functions of mirror neurons related to "connecting" with others.
Have you ever wondered why we yawn when we see others yawning? And why, when you ask someone how he/she is doing, you often know if he/she is hiding something from you or not?
All these behaviors have to do with the other person, not with yourself; they are phenomena related to a system of neurons called mirror neurons. mirror neurons, which play a fundamental role in human communication and empathy..
What are mirror neurons?
Until a few decades ago it was thought that the motor, visual, auditory, and other sensory elements of the nervous system worked relatively independently. It was thought that there was a group of neurons that belonged to one system, and other groups that belonged to other systems, and that they did their work without taking each other into account.
In the 1990s, thanks to the development of magnetic resonance imaging techniques and studies of Blood flow in the brain, a group of researchers realized that the same group of motor neurons that were activated by the movement of the individual were also activated when that individual saw the action being performed..
In other words, the same neurons were activated when the person picked up the glass as when he or she saw another individual pick up the glass.
This was a huge breakthrough in the understanding not only biologically but also philosophically of the human being. Suddenly, your action becomes my action, and that is the phenomenology that emerges: what the other does becomes mine. These scientists had just discovered the neural basis of human social communication, the mirror neurons..
And here lies the importance of this complex of neurons in our daily life. These nerve cells allow us not only to know what the other person is doing, but also to understand why he or she is doing it. It is a concept related to that of theory of mind, of being able to know and understand what the other person feels and how he or she lives.
This is the substrate that seems to be damaged in people with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and apparently is the biological cause of the impairment in social communication shown by individuals with this kind of disorders.
What are mirror neurons used for in our daily lives?
Fundamentally, they are used so that we can be social beings, so that we take into account our environment and can give appropriate social responses. Somehow, they function as a social and emotional GPS, which allows you to know your environment to give more appropriate social responses from the understanding of what the other does and feels.
Returning to the questions at the beginning, mirror neurons are responsible for yawning when we see someone yawning. They also work to detect inconsistencies in communication, since the language, motor, visual and auditory systems work at the same time and can detect if the body language is consistent with the oral speech, so we can know if we are being told the truth or not.
Also thanks to them, we can observe if there is a connection or not between two people who have just met each other.by imitating gestures. Normally, we tend to unconsciously mirror each other's gestures in a conversation if we are really listening.
This imitation will be registered by the other person's brain as a sign that you are in sync with them. That you understand what they are saying and how they feel when they say it. What will happen is that the imitation will activate more or less the same mirror neurons in their brain as in ours. In fact, we like more those people who resonate our movements in a subtle way.
If you get a new job, mirror neurons will work automatically, sending you and directing information about the behaviors and emotions of others, so you can tell which coworker you like best.This way you can know which colleague seems friendlier, who generates more tension, who listens attentively and who doesn't... and be able to respond to the environment in an adaptive way.
Finally, it should be noted that this article emphasizes the connection of these mirror neurons with the socialization of the individual, but these cells also fulfill relevant functions not so directly related to communication with others. They are responsible for the transfer of knowledge from one field to another, emotional self-regulation, learning by imitation and many other areas.
I hope that this field of research has been as interesting to you as it has to me and that it has awakened your curiosity to understand the brain and its functions.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)