Off the Couch

Monkey see, monkey do

Sometimes science is really cool.  We’ve always known that as humans we are able to feel others pain, connect with how others are feeling and mimic what they are doing, but it took some monkeys and an accident to understand how.

This week on Radio Live I talked about empathy and how “mirror neurons” were discovered.  In the nineties a group of Italian neuroscientists were studying the brains of monkeys while they performed simple motor tasks, like opening a nut.  It was fairly unremarkable stuff.  (Click here for audio of this weeks radio interview).

But one day while one of the monkeys was hooked up to the brain measuring equipment, a scientist was in the lab opening a nut and he observed on the scanners that the regions of the brain associated with these motor actions in the monkey, who was observing what he was doing, were active.  It seemed that just observing him doing the action was activating the motor cortex of the monkey, even though it wasn’t actually doing the action.

Further studiers have expanded and explored the role of mirror neurons in depth and found them to be associated with learning, communication and in humans empathy, for instance showing that people who report higher levels of empathy on questionnaires show higher levels of activity in mirror neurons for emotions.

Interestingly some researchers have also shown that when we are practiced at being compassionate (see: Treat ’em mean) we are better able to tolerate others pain, and thus able to be more empathic. (Click here for article).

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be talking about how we can increase our ability to empathize with others, and why we should.  In the meantime here’s a nice little video that shows how empathy can save the world.  Seriously…

Leave a Comment

  • Geoff April 15, 2013, 2:10 pm

    Nice post and the RSAnimate video is well done.

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