Empathy and Mirror Neurons: Or, Monkey See, Monkey Yawn

empathy mirror neurons

Two videos went “viral” among my Facebook friends this week. Both illustrating empathy as an instinctual behavior, potentially linked to “mirror neurons”. In one, a baby dances. In the other, four babies laugh.

Readers often ask me about ADHD and its potential impact on empathy. To begin to understand that knotty topic, we need to understand empathy basics.  Right now, it’s mirror neurons. Those two videos will help illustrate.

In this post,  you’ll

  1. See two video examples of, potentially, human “mirror neurons” in action
  2. Learn a bit about the Italian research team who discovered mirror neurons
  3. Get an update on the viral sensation “Laughing Quadruplets”
  4. See primatologist Frans de Waal’s Ted Talk, including his experiments with monkeys and yawning

Defining Mirror Neurons

My husband and I will be watching a TV show. Suddenly, there’s a surprise twist—a car bashes into a tree, a bullet lands, a fist flies into a face—and I will react as if that action happened to me. Because, in a sense, that’s how it feels.

Reactions vary: I might yelp or my arm will jump. Whatever my reaction, it both annoys and amuses my husband.

I can suppress this empathic response if I am prepared for the action. But I can hardly anticipate a surprise, right?

Apparently, my mirror neurons are making themselves known.

Here is one definition:

mirror neuron is a neuron [brain cell] that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.

Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species. [More about that below.)

 

Baby See, Baby Dance: Mirror Neurons in Action?

Consider the dancing baby above. Unable to stand without support. Presumably unschooled in “isolation” dance moves (e.g. moving head side to side). And yet, that baby Beyonce wannabee still gets down.

Apparently, this baby possesses an extraordinary ability to “mirror” these dancers.

This reminds me of my husband and me taking Salsa dance lessons years ago:  I would look at the instructor and “mirror” her moves with my own body. My husband tried the same and—nada. He didn’t seem to be seeing or feeling what I was seeing feeling. What gives?  Given that he had yet to be diagnosed with ADHD then, there could be a variety of reasons, including coordination, working memory, and so on..

But for me, mirror neurons seemed definitely at work.

Recently, I read with great interest Marco Iacoboni’s book Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others.

A leading neuroscientist, Iacoboni is part of the Italian scientific team that discovered mirror neurons in the brain. In other words, the team showed that empathy is brain-based. We hear a lot about “teaching empathy,” especially to children. But is that the correct term? We can teach the importance of compassion and empathy. But we can’t make someone “feel” empathic.

Marco Iacoboni
Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD

Scientist Iacoboni’s Mirroring People

From the book’s product description: “From imitation to morality, from political affiliations to consumer choices, mirror neurons are relevant to myriad aspects of social cognition.”

This landmark book explains our remarkable human ability to get inside another person’s head. That is,  to know what he or she is thinking and feeling— even if we’ve never experienced those thoughts and feelings ourselves.

That last part is critical; we might commiserate with people who feel the same way we do, but that’s not empathy. (I’ll leave the experts to describe what that is exactly. Projection perhaps, or identification?)

Here’s the catch: Empathy is a universal human quality. But it is is not equally distributed among individuals. That is, some humans are hardwired to be more empathic than others. Most notably, persons on the autistic spectrum experience a lower-than-average sense of empathy. But, in fact, you could say empathy itself is a spectrum condition.

The Giggling Quadruplets

Next, consider the laughing babies, below. These quadruplets chortle and even belly-laugh in unison, triggered by Daddy’s funny noises. My husband quips, “Looks like Village of the Damned”.  Most people find the quartet’s laughter infectious.

That video became famous when it won an America’s Funniest Home Video competition.

In a retrospective show on Oprah (The Laughing Quadruplets)—with the quads now 16 years old—the father describes the phenomenon as a “contagious-type laugh.”

Are these plentiful mirror neurons at play, connecting these babies with each other and their parents —and even the viewers at home?  Maybe so.

Are Humans More Empathic than Animals?

Finally, consider another empathic contagion called yawning. It’s explained here in a report from The Wall Street Journal’s Science Journal columnist Robert Lee Hotz, on empathy in primates and other animals (“Tracing the Origins of Human Empathy”).

Hotz writes about the work of renowned primatologist Frans de Waal. If you’re thinking that humans are more empathic (or humane) than animals, de Waal says think again. He cites recent studies that “challenge the primacy of human logic and put animals on a closer behavioral footing with humans.”

Columnist Hotz continues:

Based on the studies of mammals, from primates to mice, de Waal proposes that empathy is an instinctual behavior exhibited by both lab rats and elephants. But de Waal’s aim isn’t merely to show that apes are transactional creatures with a basic understanding of reciprocity—but to reveal that the idea that humans are naturally calculating, competitive and violent is grounded in a falsehood willfully and selfishly perpetuated.

Throughout the book, de Waal illustrates how behaving more like our wild mammalian cousins may just save humanity. His contention, colored by philosophical musings and fascinating anecdotes of observed emotional connections between animals, argues persuasively that humans are not greedy or belligerent because animals are; such traits are far from organic or inevitable but patently manmade.”

DeWaal’s Experiment with Yawning Monkeys

In this TED Talk, above, Frans de Waal talks about his work.  At minute 8:40, he shares his experiment with monkeys.  You’ll find a transcript of the talk at this link:  Frans de Waal: Moral Behavior in Animals.

Excerpt from that segment:

As always, I welcome your comments. 

—Gina Pera
Updated 2/22/21

10 thoughts on “Empathy and Mirror Neurons: Or, Monkey See, Monkey Yawn”

  1. Hello again Gina ! ive only just seen your reply ! Great thanks !.
    Sorry ! Todays rant !
    I have only ever once been psychotic hearing voices and smelling burning and thinking I could hear the telephone ringing in the middle of the night !

    this was during my seventh trauma. ( jealous raging narcissistic Aspergers ??) where I had once again started to binge eat on a loaf of white bread and butter a day !. this causing me to have Psychosis
    I had Diabetes / Hypoglycemia ???? The doctor telling me he had done all the tests ! He told me that the psychiatrist and he were getting fed up with me ! I complained ! after he repeatedly told me to go home and rest eventually he did the tests and I was right ! Entps like to be right and usually are ! . Now thinking that I had made a break through .
    I now told him that I thought that there was something else wrong with me his answer was ” you are psychotic Mr kelly go home and rest ! I went to see the Nutritionist who served the NHs she did the hair mineral analysis that showed lead mercury and Cadmium ?
    As for your question about a stimulant med. No I have never tried one !
    The psychiatrist in Spain said I could use coffee or an energy drinks in moderation which became a daily habit but it bashed my adrenals to hard. so now it would seem I am suffering from adrenal fatigue/ exhaustion/ insufficiency ? again. so I’ve stopped coffee and energy drinks but sometimes it takes forever to wake up in the mornings (ADD) and occasionally can last for much of the day ! (5pm) The lead mercury and cadmium apparently damaged my adrenal nervous endocrine and pituritry systems as well as my blood brain barrier it seems. Oh woopee ! never mind I’m still alive and just have to take it easy and not get to over aroused ! .I am 63 ! Ive tried modafinil (i hated it ) , abilify, didnt seem to do anything ?. Maybe i should try another type of stimulant ? I think i am now paranoid about drugs because of my experience with anti depressants.
    Seroxat suicidal after one week !. and two other anti depressants the same !.
    I was only Psychotic for a short period of time when my blood sugars were out of control. they then put me on Olanzapine for ten years and i didn’t know what it was ! an anti psychotic which i never needed ! ????

    Have you seen the video and book ! Death by medicine ?????

    It really makes you think !

    1. Hi Howard,

      I haven’t seen Death by Medicine — but I bet I know the major points. 🙂

      That Spanish doctor telling you to consume caffeine for ADHD. ach.

      Other doctors missing your diabetes — apparently, not even thinking about it. Or telling you to “go home and rest.”

      I’m not suggesting that you try a stimulant. I was just curious.

      If you do decide to try — and that might be very dicey in Spain — it would be wise to start with a micro-dose. Tiny. Tiny. Increase slowly, and only in absence of intolerable side effects.

      Many prescribes view side effects not as “data” by which to re-assess the original prescription — but as something to treat with more Rx.

      “Double the dosage” is the common refrain from prescribers who listen more to pharma reps than their patients.

      take care!
      g

  2. Hello Gina !
    This is a little off topic possibly but I found your article very interesting !
    This is what I believe to be my incredible unbelievable story
    just like being Sherlock Holmes !

    I WENT DIGGING AND SEARCHING FOR CLUES !

    MY LIVING NIGHTMARE !

    WHAT LAYS AND LIES BENEATH !

    As a child I could hardly read or write. i had learning difficulties with higher maths and still only write in capital letters, I did not use punctuation and had no idea about algebra equasions nouns verbs and the like !
    I lived my life in a fantasy dream world all of my own and just wanted to play and have fun !

    Now sixty years on
    I am struggling presently. i am an Empath and trying hard to get to grips with it. I can not be near ill or depressed people as I take on their pain and suffering and feel it in my body and mind ??
    Maybe this was one of the reasons why I bought a ruin on a piece of land away from people in up in a quiet village in the foothills of Spain !!!
    I have undiagnosed inattentive ADD ( sixth sense ? , intuition ? and the ability to read people like a book ? when I am aroused ! ) which can be a bit of a pain in the bottom at times ! Lol !. I am some what psychic it seems .
    At age 50 I had my first psychic experience
    I sensed the death of my older half sister and they thought I was having a heart attack. I walked up to a man in a coffee shop and just said you are a chronic Alcoholic and you have had problems all your life !. He was a highly functioning ASD whom I diagnosed my self ) I contacted the London psychic centre to find out if I was a psychic empath ????
    My father had just died. (starved himself to death in a care home )
    I was selling off his house contents and a woman knocked on my door to buy two single beds !
    The first thing she said was ” I am an empath and a healer ! ”
    what the hell was going on ????
    We got on like a house on fire ! she helped children with ADD !!! ???
    Now I moved to Spain for the sunlight !
    I have an incredible memory and can remember car registrations and telephone numbers, exact conversation from childhood onwards in pictures and words of things which somehow stood out to me as interesting ! especially ones during trauma ! I was hypervigilant !
    I picked out a woman at a dog charity do and she had written a book on two of my conditions. she was a singer songwriter and I played bass for her in her band ! music was my first obsessive overfocused interest !
    I can walk into a room and sense disfunction immediately !
    a trainee psychologist who lived next door with a sex addiction.
    a girl in an office who had been raped !!!
    a musician friend with a wife with a controlling abusive personality !
    always putting him down rudely in front of people ! anxiety fear of abandonment and low self esteem ???
    I have just read the emotions (test) behind 36 sets of eyes and got 33 right ! I was traumatised 6 times before the age of six and three times in adulthood. (Google the gifts of trauma )
    I believe that my ADD was caused by Heavy metal poisoning and possibly made worse by my traumas. Just to make things worse I inherited high functioning ASD from my father a man with a narrow band of specialist interests which he excelled at just like me ! and psychic abilities from my mother.
    Talk about mess with my head ??? I test as an ENTP when hyperfocused 2014 (a genius ???) and an INTP when depressed.( Sherlock Holmes)
    the types most likely to have psychic abilities ?????
    I am highly sensitive to light with winter depressions. As an ASD these subjects became my latest obsessive specialist interest in 2014 after being hurriedly diagnosed with a probable Bi Polar condition ( This may well be correct but am now told that it is mild and is highly seasonal) I knew I had Innatentive ADD at age 28 becoming suspicious i found the book ” You mean I’m not lazy stupid or crazy ” Ticked of all the symptoms and decided that was my problem. It did not stop me from becoming the top manager in a retail company out of 60 other managers but I didn’t know why.
    Empathy with my staff and hyperfocus on the job in hand developing my own systems and maintaining and fixing problems with plant room and shop equipment a gift that I had had since childhood. I had gone from empathy and understanding with machines to empathy and understanding of people !!!!!
    The managing directors loved me !
    I was traumatised by my boss who had crazy eyes ! bullying and hassling me ! I started to binge eat on sandwiches fish and chips and curries !
    I collapsed lost my marriage house and career almost overnight and went to bed for 4 years only crawling exhausted out of bed to eat bread and butter which was eventually going to be diagnosed as my poison !!
    Anyway I can write and talk about this all day long !
    Last February when Covid started the skies turned black and rainy and I fell into a suicidal depression and I wanted to know why ??? Being an Psychic Empath (a gift and a curse) I wondered if I was sensing the souls of the thousands of people that were dying ??.
    But of course it could just be the lack of sunlight yet again. or Both ???
    Light boxes in winter are an absolute must for me and I am learning my lesson. on August 25th 2015 I had been sleeping for 18 hours a day for 4 years after my eighth trauma and was not getting sunlight. I was to do three things and my brain would suddenly come to life !. I had been obsessively researching ADD bipolar 2 and many other conditions in a desperate attempt to discover what was wrong/right with me ! I was desperate !
    I asked my doctor for an anti depressant but was refused ! I think she had my best interests at heart thinking that it might cause me to commit suicide !. I felt like I was going to die so I decided to take matters into my own hands. ( DISCLAIMER) PLEASE NOTE I AM NOT A DOCTOR AND WOULD NOT RECOMMEND YOU TRY THIS AT HOME ).

    THREE STEPS TO HEAVEN AND HELL !

    I researched a natural anti depressant medication on the internet and came up with SAM-e 400mg . i did not read the box ! do not take if you have bipolar !!! and in the book about SAM=e STOP DEPRESSION NOW ! that it was good for ADD ??????
    ( Dopamine ?????) I went hypomanic for ten days and got loads done but this was exhausting so I stopped taking it. All my depresive symptoms and sleeping for 18 hours a day had gone ! I was now sleeping for seven and a half hours per night. I felt well !
    Got out of bed and started gardening in the bright summer sunshine !
    I joined a local bowls club and won all five of their internal club competitions that summer ! Hyperfocus ?? i had never played the game before but my father had been a great player ! a a bank sports singles champion !

    THE DAY MY MIRACLE BRAIN CAME TO LIFE !
    25th August 2015
    I discovered by obsessive research that I had systemic candida Albicans.
    35 symptoms ??? I starved my self of sugar for a few months and went through the die off process my mind cleared somewhat ??? Systemic Candida mimics Mental heath conditions ????? I had had bleeding gums (Ginctivitis) for ten years but couldn’t stop them bleeding !
    so I had all my teeth removed !
    What had I done ??? I had got rid of my mercury amalgam fillings !!!
    Bang !!!!.
    overnight my life long chronic Asthma Copd and bronchitis disappeared !!
    They say that Asthma is not curable but I had done it !!!
    My miracle brain came to life !!
    It was like I had had a personality, intelligence, and vocabulary transplant !!
    words that I had heard throughout life but had never used or really understood were now available to me in writing and speech ! Wow !
    Somewhat excited and enthralled i went to see my doctor !
    I like to help people as an empath i give good advice ???.
    Initially he sat interested and listened intently but then things would turn nasty !
    I received a phone call the voice saying ” You are a very clever man !
    the phone went dead !
    i found this quite intimidating but it also confirmed that I was not stupid !
    i returned to my doctor who told me that Systemic Candida Albicans did not exist so he could not treat it !. I had showed him the results of the nutritionist tests which he said were “RUBBISH !”
    He was now in a terrible nervous state !
    i read not only eyes but body language he was a mess !.
    he asked how I could cure my asthma ? i did not reply ! thinking if you don’t know then your not much of a doctor !
    I asked him to do a bread sensitivity test which he told me was negative !
    another member of staff told me it was positive ! He was lying to me !
    Eventually I could not see him suffer any more and put his needs before my own and gave him a letter saying that I would not be holding the the health service responsible for their incompetence and negligence.
    he called me a very nice man !
    I then told him that I was going to Spain and he became agitated and angry again ! I believe he knew that he was going to be found out as a liar !
    Once in Spain i saw a doctor and said Systemic Candida Albicans !.
    Yes she said and looked in my ears ! they were full of yeast !
    I was given a course of anti biotics and it was gone !

    i still suffer from seasonal bi polar depressions but am an HSP and every medication I try makes me suicidal ! So I am unmedicated !

    I have just taken the MBTI intelligence test and scored 94% higher than anyone who had previously taken the test ! this was based on how observant you are (hyperfocused hypervigilace is my description)

    I then started the mensa test and this is much more of a challenge !

    I’m now off to meditate to calm my obsessive mammalian brain down !

    regards the Psychic ADD Empath !

    1. Dear Howard,

      Nothing is “off topic” when the topic is ADHD—in particular, my blog. 🙂

      I read your account with fascination and pain. So much you have endured….and such insights.

      Also: I read with a tiny bit of envy….a house in rural Spain….. That sounds so wonderful right now. I hope it is providing you with restful sanctuary.

      I appreciate your struggles in finding professional help. When a person has “unusual” mental and physical phenomenon, it can be so darn hard (to put it mildly) to find understanding and proper guidance.

      Standard medicine can be so black and white. If you fall in gray area, look out! And, let’s face it, some physicians don’t like being confronted with something they don’t understand. So they take it out on the patient.

      I’m married to a scientist who, along with scientist friends, has taught medical students. The two disciplines — PhD life scientists and physicians — often have very different approaches and perspectives. And they don’t always mesh. Of course, there are always exceptions…the physicians who also think like scientists.

      But I’ve had enough “weird” physical things in my life to know the difficulty in threading the needle between standard medicine and “alternative woo.”

      I’m curious. Did you ever try a stimulant medication? At a low starting dose. Very low. Yes, if bipolar is the primary (stronger) condition, that should be stabilized first. But so many times, ADHD is misdiagnosed as bipolar.

      Thanks for sharing your story,

      Gina, ENTJ 🙂

  3. Watching our 4-month-old mimic our movements is incredible. Simply because we put food in our mouth, she reaches out to do the same. The same holds true for emotions; she’s like a sponge, and would feel the same way we do.

    I love those two baby videos, by the way.

  4. Hi!

    Your post is very interesting and in some ways I believe it when you said that…”Mirror neurons in the brain, showing that empathy is brain-based. That is, humans are hardwired to share someone else’s feelings.” I guess this can also be connected to the nature vs. nurture theory. We all empathize or do things at a different level because we were born that way (nature). At some point, we also absorb the different things that are happening around us (nurture). Some other imporant aspects that should be considered is the fact that we are all born to interact with one another and that, not everyone is born normal.

    Thanks for this post!

    Summer

  5. When I saw the dancing baby video earlier last week, all I could think of was, “what a cute baby”. Leave it to you, Gina, to bring toghether popular culture and neuroscience in a most entertaining way.
    I’m assuming we may be ‘hard wired’ for empathy, but our predispositions can also be adjusted during early childhood development. Nature vs. Nurture.

  6. The first particular reading I did on mirror neurons was in Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. It seemed immediately to be the key to understanding so much about Asperger’s/Autism. And, possibly, Republicans…

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