Empathy seems to be the internal stage where others’ emotions are performed. We empathize with someone when we feel their pain, their sadness, happiness or enthusiasm. Each one of us knows the experience: our heart shrinks as we see a homeless kid sleeping in the street, or we get so deep into the plot of a movie that we are moved by the main character’s experiences; or we even catch the fun that seems to rapidly spread in a party.
What lies in the bottom of this empathic feeling? Less than twenty years ago, scientists discovered a certain kind of motor neurons that fire not only when we do some movement –for instance, taking a cup and lifting it from the table- but also when we just see that movement. That is, neurons activate when we are mere witnesses of someone else, not ourselves, taking the cup. This group of neurons was called <<mirror neurons>>, because they kind of reflect what we have in front. This is an outstanding finding. It means that part of the brain processes devoted to move our body achieve to identify the movements of other people. As if they internally performed what we see in order to make out what we could do as well.
The process also happens within the brain circuitry that particularly controls our facial muscles. Those are the muscles we achieve expressions in our faces with, so important for emotional communication. Years after the ‘mirror neurons’ were discovered –at first associated to the movement of arms and hands-, several neuroimaging studies were carried out, targeting emotional reactions. (These studies involve people inside huge machines that magnetically detect which areas in the brain are working more than others). Researchers proved that simply being witnesses of the emotional expressions of other people is enough to activate areas of our brain which could command those same gestures.
Something even more astonishing was verified by using electromyography. Electromyography is another technique that, via tiny electrodes, allows measuring the most subtle electric changes produced in the muscles when they activate. This procedure led to the following discovery: whenever we see another person show startle, happiness or sadness in their faces, we perform microexpressions without even being aware of it. Extremely subtle facial movements of that same kind we are observing.
Here it is: a non-reasoned imitation, automatic, wired within our brains. A useful detector of the emotional situation of other people, accurate and practical. These are the circuits of empathy. They build the internal stage where we mirror someone else’s experiences.
• Iacoboni, Marco (2008), Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others.