Do Mirror Neurons Cause Empathy and Morality?

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

It was April 8, 2019 when I read a report that researchers from the Max Planck Institute and Sante Fe Institute had devised a new explanation on the evolutionary origins of empathy, positing that cognitive simulation is a pillar to the phenomenon. A focal point of the study was to question if it is possible for evolutionary forces to guide and mold cognitive processes of empathetic responses without the aid of coordination, cooperation, imitation or behaviors that increase kin-survival. [1] This might cause us to ask: what is empathy’s purpose for survival, if there is one?

A basic premise of the research is that humans can simulate the minds of others. It is a bit like mind-reading. A lot of guesswork and anticipation is involved with mind-simulation, and quite often we can be right about what others are thinking. This may seem rather obvious to you in your daily social interactions. What is not obvious in the least are your specialized brain cells, called mirror neurons, that are responsible for your observing an action as well as your repeating that same action. Scientists have known for a while now that mirror neurons represent this process. [1]

Of course, in laypeople’s minds empathy seems to be a kindred spirit with morality. So, is that relevant here?

The Neuromodulation Lab at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center published a report in 2018 on a study they conducted about the interplay between morality and the human brain’s mirror neuron system. Our mirror neurons, located in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex, make up the apparatus that enables us to learn through mimicry and empathy, so they think. Neural resonance helps to explain the cringing you feel when witnessing another’s pangs and throes. Dr. Marco Lacoboni and his research team focused on moral dilemmas and how much people are inclined to avoid foisting pain onto others during such times. [2]

So, how would you save yourself as a refugee hiding from enemy soldiers during wartime when you must stop the shrilling, conspicuous cry of your baby and possibly smother it to prevent them from finding you? Evidently, this was inspired by the television series titled M.A.S.H from the 1970s and 1980s. Scientists during the study believed they could provide insights based on brain activity during a person’s observation of someone else’s anguish. Scientists used a functional MRI machine to study brain responses of 19 participants who watched two videos: one video of a cotton swab innocuously contacting a hand and the other video of a hypodermic needle piercing a hand. [2]

It was reported that Lacoboni and his team’s results unveiled that their participants’ unwillingness to hurt others was determined by their levels of neural resonance and inferior frontal cortex activity, the brain region responsible for empathy and imitation; the greater those levels, the more unwillingness there was to hurt others. It was believed by Lacoboni’s researchers that “more cognitive, deliberative processes” are involved with the willingness to hurt another in the interest of defending the greater good and that “genuine concern for others’ pain” is a better determinant of the outcome of moral dilemmas. [2]  

But I cannot keep myself from wondering if the two reports I discussed here are perhaps oversimplifying the whole relationship between mirror neurons, empathy, and morality. A little review of the history of the matter may illuminate what we could be missing.

Let’s go back to the 1990s when scientists studied the brains of macaques and found selective neuronal firing both when the monkey performed an action and when witnessed the performance of that same action. It was discovered “that actions can be coded by individual neurons on a level that generalizes across motor and sensory domains and across different actors.” P.F. Ferrari and G. Rizzolatti issued there 2014 update on this.

Internal simulation was found to be the conduit through which we could accomplish making sense of observed actions and accessing others’ intentions. Looking back, it is plain to see that we were captivated by the tantalizing conclusion that we could finally understand the whole machinery of empathy based on mirror neurons being our little helpers. [3]

Just as monkeys seemed to be hardwired for echoing the emotions of others, it seemed obvious that the same should be said about humans. The exaggerations of this have been exposed through critical empirical work, but that seemingly has not sufficed as many still believe in the fantasy. And media moguls even to this day have palpably showed us no mercy with the misinformation. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran is said to be a culprit and has reportedly said that mirror neurons are not being exaggerated. He has even called them “the basis of civilization” in a TED talk. [4]

Premotor and parietal neurons in macaques have been shown to respond both to the sight and performance of actions but these same neurons have not demonstrated involvement in the evocations of monkeys observing emotional expressions from others. Furthermore, these results of single-cell recordings in monkeys are not replicable in humans. We are limited to the evidence from indirect and imprecise neuroimaging technology when studying humans. We are not even completely sure that mirror neurons exist in humans, though intracortical recordings raise the possibility. And yet, media moguls and popular science magazines have wanted to take their embellishments even further by asserting that these unverified components are not only involved with “coding emotional expressions” but also play a “causal role in higher-order interpretative functions such as understanding intentions and affective states in others.”[3]

But what are they even trying to mean or suggest by “mirroring”? Is that a feature of mimicking observed behavior by converting visual input into motor code? That cannot be implied with the demonstration that mirror neurons can sometimes code detailed actions on a kinematic or broad level. As we have been expected to believe that some form of bottom-up mirroring exists, such a thing can’t exist when a one-to-one perceptual charting of movements is nonexistent. To make matters worse for those trying to capitalize on mirror neurons, studies have shown that other brain regions are responsible for interpreting observed actions and that mirror neurons work in top-down fashion to only promote ongoing perception, by reflecting, and not enabling, comprehension of others’ actions.[3]

If mirror neurons must take the spotlight here, that spotlight ought to be shared with motor resonance. Different pathways and mechanisms, including the cingulate cortex and the anterior insula, are mobilized for affective processing when, for instance, watching someone get punched or verbally upbraided and abused. [3]

But even motor resonance is not the end-all-be-all for empathy to be felt.

To put another dent in the popular science’s favorite conclusion, monkeys do not always need mirror neurons to experience empathy. Empathy can be felt even without a person or (mis)deed triggering the event, and this is clearly evinced by the fact that you can feel pain, happiness, and many other sentiments for a fictional or nonfictional character while reading about them in a book or newspaper. Learning about another’s twinge and torture via abstract visual cues and not pictorial representation can exclude motor resonance regions and instead involve regions connected to mentalization (detecting the mental state and intentions of others that underly their overt behavior, dubbed as ‘thinking about thinking’) and theory of mind (the ability to realize that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own). [3]

Having the appetence or ability for empathy and acting on empathy are two different things, which I suspect had not been empirically realized in prior decades. A psychopath may not have the inborn propensity for empathy but can develop the ability upon receiving unambiguous instructions to do so, thereby undermining the premise that empathy is elicited based only on bottom-up signaling from mirror neurons. People plagued by congenital analgesia, which is the rare inability to sense pain, can learn empathetic sensations in response to others’ woe and misery. This demonstrates that motor resonance is not the only vehicle of empathy activation. [3]

Science has revealed that mirror neurons do not even suffice for generating accurate empathy, either. “Mirroring” is just a loose analogous term for defining what it means to duplicate in yourself similar emotions that you witness from others. [3]

But we are not totally lost in the quest for understanding the neuronal foundations of empathy.

 FMRI technology has opened a new domain of research, allowing us to inspect the phenomenon more directly. The field of social neuroscience is saliently responsible. Maybe you would like to ask: “How did this new scientific field start?” We can attribute that to T. Singer’s team of researchers in 2004 who demonstrated that neural similarities, located in the cingulate and insular cortices, exist between empathizing with another’s pain and experiencing that pain directly. B. Wicker’s team from 2003 reported that the anterior insula (AI) cortex and the anterior midcingulate cortex (AMCC), which are parts of the neuromatrix involved with painful stimulation, showed activation too. Many postliminary image-based and coordinate-based meta-analyses replicated congruent results. [3]

 The overlapping of neural responses in direct emotional experiences and certain facets of empathy have been observed with technology such as electroencephalography (EEG), motor evoked potential transcranial magnetic stimulation (MEP-TMS), and presurgical intracranial electrophysiology. But this overlapping is not intended to mean that the same neural processes are engaged. Researchers have been keen on admitting that “a clear-cut interpretation of shared activations” is lacking. Shared neural activations do not plainly denote whether they serve our full understanding of another’s actions or if they reflect understanding of another’s actions. To this day, we have only been able to study the correlations between these neural activities and their “co-occurring with the experience of empathy.” To more fully understand why “shared activations are a necessary condition for subjective experiences of empathy” we need to supplement our methodologies with neuropsychological lesion studies or neurostimulation studies, which clarify the causal relationships of shared activations more than relying on correlational stuff. Such neuropsychological studies have been issued, but several things have prevented us from getting enough information for designing satisfactory, data-supported conclusions. These studies are: 1) restricted because of the inadequacies of self-reporting on trait empathy, 2) restricted because of the absence of patients with circumscribed lesions of the anterior insula and midcingulate cortex only, and 3) the experiment’s models and criteria included  dependent variables that captured affect-sharing processes other than empathy. [3]

Anterior insula damage has demonstrated attenuation in the ability to recognize another’s moods, feelings and attitudes (also called affective perspective taking).  Disrupting the supramarginal gyrus can result in dysfunctional empathic judgments because of the inability to disentangle subjective schemas from objective reality.” [3]

So, we can see that empathy is causally linked to things other than mirror neurons.

But I have some final hypothetical thoughts that could preface a new research endeavor. These specialized brain cells, called mirror neurons, that are linked to mimicry and coding your actions as well as the actions of others, could also be linked to your desire to “fit in” with others. Mirror neurons could be the cause for this congenital natural tendency to imitate what you see around you to feel cohesive with your surroundings, your culture, and the world. In a sense, conformity is totally necessary at times, though we oftentimes want to be and must be nonconformists. Nonverbal behaviors can serve as a sort of social glue  cementing the emotional bonds between people. It is so ingrained in you that you tend to unintentionally adopt the behaviors, postures, or mannerisms of others who are interacting with you (called nonconscious mimicry). Such imitation that is imperative for fostering emotional attachment between parent and newborn shows its evidence in one-month-old infants who smile, stick out their tongues, and open their mouths after someone else who is doing the same. [5]

I will likely discuss this matter again in future posts. Stay tuned.






[5] Stephen L. Franzoi, Psychology: A Discovery Experience, Chapter 14.2, page 416

2 thoughts on “Do Mirror Neurons Cause Empathy and Morality?

Add yours

  1. Very informative and excellently researched and written. I have one question about something I felt was left a little ambiguous: what are some examples of difference between bottom-up and top-down signaling? Thanks.


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