Empathy is a fundamentally human trait. We’re a highly social species, connecting and learning from one other by reading and copying facial expressions and movements.
Recent studies in neuroscience have shed further light on these interactions, revealing that when we watch someone doing something, cells in our brain fire in the same way as if we were doing it ourselves. A set of brain cells found on either side of our head, known as mirror neurons, are fundamental to this process. We learn by looking and copying, which means when we see someone doing an action, we can learn how to do it too by imagining and sharing their experience.
Research also suggests that these neurons also enable us to mirror other people’s feelings and connect emotionally by sending messages to the emotional or limbic part of the brain, so it seems mirror neurons are key not only to how we learn, but also how we experience the world around us and build good relationships with others.
Want more? Here’s a great PBS video introduction to mirror neurons.