As I am quite sure all of you have watched Titanic at some point in your lives or at least know the story, I’m gonna ask you one simple question? How did you feel when Jack Dawson died at the end of the movie? Did you burst out into tears, did you feel an overwhelming sadness? If the answer is Yes! (and should be, unless you are some socio-paths, heartless people – just kidding, I didn’t cry either!), this article is meant to briefly explain what actually happened in our brain at that time.
Psychologists would call this empathy. And that’s true. For a few moments you were experiencing what Rose was feeling while she was seeing her lover freezing to death and then drowning. But why did you empathize with a movie character? What do humans empathize at all? It all comes down to neurons. In order to try to understand this complex process that lies behind our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place, we need to figure out the neurological mechanisms that triggers all this. (This could be a good excuse when someone calls you a wet blanket, for example: ‘It’s not me, it’s my mirror-neurons and oxytocine signalling in the anterior cingulate gyrus’, as you’ll see below)
Some special motor neurons have been discovered in the frontal lobes of monkeys, that apparently signal both when the animal is performing a particular task and when it’s seeing someone else doing the same thing.They were called mirror neurons. It’s important to bear in mind: “the same thing”, because for another type of action, other mirror neurons would show activity. Thus, these neurons are highly specific. Evidence of mirror neurons have been recorded in humans as well, using neuroimaging, but there isn’t a 100% certainty they actually exist, as it is in macaques and apes.
Researchers now believe that mirror neurons (if they indeed exist in humans) are also involved in the development of learning (in particular, in language formation); they also appear to account for the evolution of mankind throughout the history (from homo sapiens to homo sapiens sapiens – around 200,000 years ago – and the development of arts, modern tools, religious beliefs – later on, around 40,000 years ago). Moreover, many scientists see dysregulation in mirror neurons’ activity as a possible cause of autism – one of the primary symptoms of this disease being the incapacity of the patient to relate himself to the exterior world, hence the anti-social behaviour.
There are many other long-known brain structures which trigger emotions and empathy, such as the anterior cingulate gyrus, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the neurotransmitter oxytocin…But mirror neurons are a quite novel discovery and may set neuroscientists on track to explain complex processes that happen in our brains. Cool, right? 🙂
This article is not only about mirror neurons, but also about empathy. I put a link to a short video filmed in India, in which a macaque monkey is being resuscitated by another one, after having been electrocuted. Some say this is a clear sign of empathy in animals (at least in the superior ones; also elephants, dolphins have shown many signs of empathy before). Other say it is a normal altruistic behaviour, present in most animals (from insects to mammals). Ethologists and population geneticists refer to altruism as one of the instincts of putting others in your species first in order to assure species’ survival and evolution and is mostly encountered in animals that have lived in groups.
What do you think? Do some animals empathize or what we might see as an empathic behaviour is nothing more than pure adaptive instinct?