The mirror neurons, base of our self-awareness and empathy

         The mirror neurons are the neurons that operate when an animal observes another animal and does the same action by instinct. The mirror neurons act by watching another’s behavior and transposing himself in its shoes. This behavior, that all of the animals have, was observed and researched by scientists over the time, mainly on primates and birds. Humans have also mirror neurons and can be found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.

            Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues, neurophysiologists, were the discoverers of the mirror neurons. They experimented on the macaque monkeys and studied the mirror hand and mirror mouth actions, analyzing their brain with electrodes.

            Researchers from the neurological domain and the psychological one consider the mirror neurons to be a very important mechanism of perception and learning by imitation. Some researchers believe that the mirror neurons contribute to the theory of mind skills, others say that it helps humans learn to acquire the basic language skills.

Mirror Neurons 2  Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist from UCLA, considers that the mirror neurons, in the human mind, helps people understand the actions and the intensions of others. Iacoboni and his colleagues made an experiment that proves the basics of the mirror neurons. The experiment was made with two men, one had a cup of tea and the other one was observing. Iacoboni proved that the observer knew if the man was to dink the tea or to clear the table. Additional to this experiment Iacoboni claimed that the mirror neurons are the basics of human emotions such as empathy.

            Stephanie Preston and her colleagues stated and argued that the empathy in humans is due to the mirror neurons in the brain. Using the fMRI, EEG and MEG the scientists studied the mirror neurons observing that certain brain parts are more active when people experience emotions or when people observe other people experiencing an emotion. However the brain parts that are active in emotions differ from the brain parts that are active in the mirror hand actions. The emotional mirror neuron experiments were not yet proven on monkeys. The human experiments that took part in arguing the mirror neurons involving empathy are:

  1. “Viewing facial expressions of pain engages cortical areas involved in the direct experience of pain”
  2. “The perception of pain in others suppresses somatosensory oscillations: a magnetoencephalography study”
  3. “Vicarious responses to pain in anterior cingulate cortex: Is empathy a multisensory issue?”
  4. “Empathy for positive and negative emotions in the gustatory cortex”
  5. “The neural substrate of human empathy: effects of perspective-taking and cognitive appraisal”
  6. “The common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust”
  7.  “The neural substrate of human empathy: effects of perspective-taking and cognitive appraisal”

V.S. Ramachandran speculated that mirror neurons are pretty much involved in the basics of self-awareness. He states that the two mirror neurons and the self-awareness co-evolve, enriching each other to create the representation that characterizes of the modern humans.

            This human characteristics that are learned with the help of the mirror neurons help us perceive and understand everything that surrounds us, evolving us in better people.

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