How do mirror neurons work

Mirror Neurons: Keys to Empathy and Sympathy

Emotions can be contagious. The so-called are to blame for this Mirror neurons: Somebody smiles at you - you smile back involuntarily; the colleague opposite yawns - and you have to yawn immediately; someone hits the music bone on the elbow - and suddenly you feel the pain too ... Mirror neurons in our brain are responsible for the fact that we react to our fellow human beings in such a compassionate and empathic manner feel what they feel. In short: mirror neurons make us a social being. Discovered a quarter of a century ago, science still knows little about these nerve cells. You should be decisive for empathy and sympathy ...

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Mirror neurons definition: sensitive nerve cells

In the early 1990s, a group of Italian researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti undertook a series of Try with macaques, a species of monkey among the primates. In the experiments of the University of Parma, it was originally intended to find out how actions in the brain planned and implemented become. And which nerve cells are active in this process.

But then it came to a sensational discovery: the neurons in the F5c brain area did not only react when the monkey reached for a nut. The meter also knocked out when the monkey just watchedhow one researcher grabbed the nut.

This reaction of the nerve cells to the behavior of another was interpreted as "mirroring", which is why the nerves henceforth as Mirror neurons (English: mirror neurons) were designated. In humans, they sit in the area of ​​the prefrontal cortex (Frontal lobe). More precisely: im Broca area, which is associated with speech functions, among other things. In 2010, the scientists Roy Mukamel and Itzhak Fried even managed to measure the activity of mirror neurons directly in the human brain.

Although the discovery of mirror neurons initially related to action, neuroscientist Sophie Scott of University College London found one in 2006 Evidence of feelings: She played sounds to her subjects that expressed various emotions such as disgust, fear, triumph or joy. The brain areas were promptly activated in these cases as well.

One thing is certain: mirror neurons function unconsciously. Its contagious effect works without thinking. Thus mirror neurons mainly cause ...

  • that we watched feelings empathize can (see: empathy).
  • that we are observing behavior intuitively to imitate.
  • that we - with sympathy - our body language unconsciously harmonize and imitate.

Accordingly, mirror neurons are now also called Simulation or empathy neurons designated. They form - possibly even - the foundation of our thinking, compassion, and language. However, they only react if the observed behavior is known to us or belongs to our own repertoire. We have to do this so that the emotional contagion succeeds in being able to fall back on previous experience.

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How mirror neurons work

Mirror neurons are not only relevant to empathy. They also play a role in the psychology of sympathy. Research speaks of the so-called resonance phenomenon: We like those who imitate us - and vice versa.

The more similar people are, the more they have in common, the more the proverbial chemistry is right. They are - as they say - on the same wavelength. But that can also be done manipulate.

It's not just that people who like each other match their body language, use the same words, or those Subconsciously imitate the facial expressions of your counterpart (Technical jargon: rapport). We can also subtly arouse sympathies by discreetly (!) Imitating the body language, gestures and facial expressions of our counterpart (see: chameleon effect).

Laughter is contagious, as is good mood and bad mood. But to what extent it's always like that authentic is difficult to judge. For example, if you laugh (along with) at the boss's joke, it may be because the joke was really funny. Or the fact that they want to keep his favor or win it.

Children have to learn empathy first

Ultimately, the existence of mirror neurons gives an old question a helping hand: How is it that some people feel like that empathize well with others can? Short answer: Because they learned it - very early on. As a child.

The capacity for compassion is part of the basic equipment of our brain, so to speak. At least it's there. Mirror neurons are sometimes already active in babies. We start ours from nine months Consciously perceiving the environment and interact with her. For example, babies smile back when someone smiles at them. Or feel when mom and dad are happy, sad or angry.

However, the mere existence of these mirror neurons is not enough: the ability to sense feelings, has to be learned. And that requires a partner.

Usually the baby learns to explore feelings from his mother (or another caregiver). Does the child do in the course of this learning process bad experiences, this of course also has an effect on the mirror neurons.

A child who, for example, experiences friendly-looking people anyway malicious sites will in future react more suspiciously to friendly people than children who have not had these experiences.

According to brain research, this is coming Life phase between the 12th and 15th year of life once again a formative meaning. At this age, empathy and mirror neurons reconnect with each other.

It is precisely these impressions and experiences that can accompany us for a lifetime, but they can also block us. Who, for example, in early youth Neglect, violence and emotional coldness will find it difficult to develop genuine empathy or trust in other people.

In the discussion about mirror neurons, therefore, a certain one appears Personality type again and again: that of the psychopath.

Studies by the Franco-German neuroscientist Christian Keysers (eBook) showed that such people when looking at painful dislocations no compassion whatsoever showed. The responsible brain area remained completely motionless with them.

What was also a big surprise of the investigation was that these psychopathically inclined people were capable of their Turning emotions on and off: After expressly asking for sympathy, they were perfectly able to show it. Unlike, for example, with autistic people. Recent research suggests that mirror neurons do not work in autism.

Mirror, mirror in the brain: we want to be mirrored

According to social psychologists, the influence of mirror neurons goes even further wishto have one's behavior and feelings reflected. This can be seen very well from major events, but also from the way we live.

Press Adjustment and Adjustment Connectedness out. But we also want to belong to a certain group. Not infrequently out of an (exaggerated) need for harmony. This in turn means that we adapt in many areas, such as ...

  • in terms of movie taste
  • in fashion
  • with books
  • with music
  • at football club
  • and and and.

A large part of human activity is based on three motifs:

  • Security: We want to have reliable knowledge about ourselves and the environment.
  • Control need: We want to be able to react appropriately in different situations.
  • Wellbeing: We want to feel good about ourselves and the groups we belong to.

Usually we look for groups with similar interests and unconsciously take over the point of view the other. This leads to our opinion being influenced by others.

The fact that groups set norms can be seen not only in football stadiums, but also in Terraced housing estates recognize: Anyone who lets their lawn sprawl while everyone else is carefully tending and caring for the green quickly becomes a (negative) conversation and may end up being neighbors. Effect: gardens and facades become more similar.

We also encounter this desire for adaptation and belonging at work. For example at the (unofficial) Dress code. Or when we find out from colleagues which series we absolutely have to watch.

Mirror neurons: criticism of comparability

The euphoria surrounding the empathy neurons has subsided a bit. For some researchers, the conclusions drawn from previous studies on mirror neurons simply go too far. That starts with the Transferability of the results to: Whether monkeys can really be compared with humans so easily is questioned again and again.

The same goes for the cause-and-effect principle - such as by brain researcher Gregory Hickok. In his opinion, it is not the mirror neurons that make us social through imitation, but the other way around: Because we are social, we imitate the actions of others.

After all, experts have no doubts about the existence of mirror neurons. Only the fact that these are individual cells is now considered controversial. The majority of scientists assume one instead complex system in the brain in which several areas with mirror functions are involved.

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[Photo credit: Karrierebibel.de]