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Volume 2, Issue 2
Summer 2006:

Mirror Neurons—Can Empathy be Learned?

Brian T. Maurer

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Summer; 2(2):a2

Walnut Neurons
Photographer: Barry Penchansky
[Larger Image]

Like most discoveries, it was serendipitous.

Researchers were measuring electrical impulses in selected neurons in the brains of Macaque monkeys during moments of meaningful physical activity. For example, they found that one set of neurons fired whenever a monkey reached out to retrieve a banana.

The surprise came when one of the researchers inadvertently performed the same maneuver in front of a monkey. While the monkey watched, the same set of neurons fired in its brain, even though the monkey was not actually performing the activity.

At first the researchers thought it was just a fluke. They repeated the experiment again and again with the same result: it appeared that the monkey's brain housed certain neurons that were activated by mere observation of the task at hand. The monkey did not have to lift a finger to trigger the neuronal activity.

The discovery of these "mirror neurons" was heralded by some neuroscientists as the discovery of the decade. If primates possessed such neurons, perhaps humans did as well.1

As it turns out, we do. Not only that, but our mirror neurons also fire when we observe and enter in with another's emotional state. In other words, these are the neurons responsible for empathic response.

As an interesting corollary, some postulate that autistic subjects lack this set of neurons, a feasible explanation as to why they seem to prefer inanimate objects to human interaction.2

Like any set of neuronal synapses in the brain, these pathways are enhanced through repetition over time. Plastic at birth, the human brain is shaped and molded neurologically by experience. This may provide an answer to the question of whether or not empathy can be learned. If anything, these preliminary results suggest that it can be.

Moreover, there may be a generic crossover to empathic learning through listening to certain pieces of music, or by experiencing certain dramatic tales as they are acted out in movies or on the stage, by a local storyteller or in the pages of a book. We may even be able to encourage the development of empathy through the discipline of daily prayer or meditation.

If such were the case, we might do well to select entrants to medical school on the basis of undergraduate exposure to the humanities: literature, drama, music, and dance. Even the most competent surgeon could enhance his practice by learning to empathize with patients in a compassionate manner.

That would be something we could all relate to.


1 What Do Mirror Neurons Mean?

2 Lack of "Mirror Neurons" May Help Explain Autism

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