Brain Awareness Video Contest

Empathy, Mirror Neurons, and the Theory of Embodied Simulation

  • Published1 Dec 2023
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Humans are innately social creatures, and the human brain has evolved to employ empathy for survival benefits and to navigate society. This human capacity for empathy is largely attributed to the theory of embodied simulation, which proposes that witnessing another individual's behavior or emotion triggers an empathetic response in our brain, which reacts as if we were experiencing it ourselves. This is enabled by specialized mirror neurons, which similarly fire both when we drop a brick on our toe and when we see someone else drop a brick on their toe.

This is a video from the 2023 Brain Awareness Video Contest.

Created by Zoey Joshlin.



Hello and welcome to today's video. Today, we're going to take a deep dive into empathy. We will discuss what empathy is, why we have it, and the neural underpinnings that enable us to experience it. Ready? Let's begin.

The term empathy refers to our ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of another. We can sense changes in someone's behavior using social cues such as body language to put together their emotional state before that individual has to explain to us how they're feeling.

In addition to being able to sense and understand someone's feelings, empathetic individuals actually share their emotions and feelings. When a friend loses a family pet, we recognize and understand the grief they're experiencing and feel sadness with them for their loss. When a hard-working coworker gets a well-earned promotion, we share their joy and offer our congratulations on their success.

Now that we've established what empathy is, let's discuss why humans even experience empathy in the first place. Humans are innately social creatures, and our large brain has evolved to manage the complexities that come with being social. Our ancestors weren't born with razor-sharp teeth or claws to defend themselves, so they relied on others for survival, creating social groups in greater societies. Those living in social groups were at decreased risk of predation and had cooperative benefits when foraging and hunting for food.

While the environment may be less life-threatening and more socially complex than it once was, humans still rely on each other. We cooperate and collaborate to achieve common goals that we could not achieve alone; we communicate and share emotions and experiences; and we form support systems to rely on in times of need.

Empathy is a social behavior that is crucial for the functioning of these social environments. Empathy for others leads to pro-social behaviors such as sharing resources, cooperating to achieve a common goal, and offering comfort in relationships, to name a few. There are numerous evolutionary advantages, such as the ones we just discussed, that offer an explanation for why social creatures experience feelings of empathy in the first place.

Lastly, we move on to the how: How do we understand feelings of empathy? What is it about our evolved social brain that allows us to understand how someone else is feeling?
One of the most prominent ideas regarding the capability of empathy is referred to as the theory of embodied simulation. This theory proposes that in addition to witnessing the behavior or emotion of another individual that triggers an empathetic response, our brain is actually creating an internal representation of the trigger as if we were experiencing it for ourselves.

How? Great question! We create these internal representations using something called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons that increase the firing activity both when you perform a specific action and when witnessing or hearing others perform the same action. For example, some mirror neurons in the ventral pre-motor region, F5, fire both when a monkey witnesses a human grabbing an object with their hands and when the monkey grabs an object with its own hands. So the same mirror neurons are firing both when monkeys see and when monkeys do.

Mirror neurons aren't reserved solely for biological movement. Mirror neurons have been found outside of the motor cortex, with some being found in frontal parietal structures such as the inferior frontal gyrus, inferior parietal lobe, and the prefrontal cortex, specifically the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Why is this important? These frontal parietal structures are actually key regions involved in the social brain; the network of brain areas evolved to house the complex processes involved with being social.

Mirror neurons are proposed to be a key player in the experience of empathy. The theory of embodied stimulation proposes that the detection of emotional information triggers the firing of the mirror neurons associated with the behavior to create an internal state that mirrors the one the other individual is currently experiencing. For example, say you just saw your best friend drop a brick on their toe. The theory of embodied simulation proposes that while the mishap is taking place, mirror neurons in various brain regions are actually firing as if you just dropped the heavy brick on your own big toe. This firing pattern elicits an emotional response, in this case pain, that allows us to feel and better understand how our friend is feeling in the moment.

These neural simulations provide a way for us to share the experience, empathize with the individual, and adjust our own behavior to better function within the social environment. Evidence of neural activity related to the theory of embodied stimulation at work has been observed in social brain structures such as the amygdala, striatum, thalamus, and anterior cingulate gyrus.

So next time you notice yourself experiencing empathy, thank your social brain for walking a simulated mile in someone else's shoes.

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