Neurons that allow us to understand others

Giacomo Rizzolatti
Giacomo Rizzolatti
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Have you ever asked yourself, why do we mirror others, especially when we see someone else yawning? The answer was discovered in 1996 and it revolutionized the world of neuroscience, of researchers, and perhaps helped us to understand why we understand others. In that year, neurologist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team discovered mirror neurons. He made the discovery when he was studying monkey´s brains and found a group of neurons that became activated not only when the animal was making a movement itself but also when it was watching another animal do so.

As a result of this discovery, subsequent research established that this system of neurons allows us to make other people´s actions, sensations, and emotions our own. It is for this reason that you can “feel” a performer´s pain or emotion and that someone´s smile is contagious. These neurons give rise to people´s connections in society such as empathy and mirroring.

On Saturday 29th July Giacomo Rizzolatti gave a conference in the Universidad de los Andes

Explain to us how you made the discovery?
Giacomo Rizzolatti: In 1996 we were studying the behavior of motor neurons in monkeys, so we implanted some electrodes into them to find out their activity. However, we ended up discovering a group of neurons that activated when the animal performed an action as well as when another person or animal performed it. 

Do these neurons function the same in humans?
GR: We started carrying out experiments with humans and we already knew that there were motor and visual neurons, but the discovery found some neurons that managed to understand another person without that person meaning for them to do so: this is what we call empathy.

Mirror neurons have created a certain amount of trust in other people, but this trust has been lost. What has happened to these neurons?
GR: There are two different mechanisms: in the case of empathy it is the capacity that the person has to picture the situation that another is going through, to feel the pain, make a face of disgust, and laugh, but this mechanism is different from the social element. Just think about the Second World War, which started because it was said that the Jews were bad people. Using this cognitive mechanism, it was possible to change the biological mechanism of empathy. This is one of the biggest dangers that we face: modifying the empathy that we have so that we damage others. Society has the ability to change empathy and turn it into something bad.

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