Mirror neurons: the biological substrate of our empathy

Have you ever wondered why we yawn when we see others yawn? And why, when you ask someone how they are doing, do you often know if they are hiding something from you or not?

All of these behaviors have to do with the other and not with yourself; are phenomena linked to a system of neurons called mirror neurons, which play a key role in human communication and empathy.

    What are mirror neurons?

    Until a few decades ago, it was believed that the motor, visual, auditory and other sensory elements of the nervous system functioned relatively independently. It was believed that there was a group of neurons that belonged to one system, and other groups that belonged to other systems, and that they were doing their jobs without considering themselves.

    In the 1990s, with the development of magnetic resonance imaging techniques and studies of blood flow in the brain, a group of researchers realized that the same group of motor neurons activated in front of the individual’s movement were also activated when that individual saw the action take place.

    That is, the same neurons were activated when the person grabbed the glass as when they saw another individual grab the glass.

    It was a huge breakthrough not only in the biological understanding of human beings, but also in the philosophical understanding. Suddenly, your action becomes my action, and it is the phenomenology that emerges: what the other does becomes mine. These scientists they had just discovered the neural basis of human social communication, mirror neurons.

    And this is where the importance in our daily lives of this complex of neurons lies. These nerve cells allow you not only to know what the other person is doing, but also to understand why they are doing it. It is a concept related to the theory of mind, being able to know and understand what the other person is feeling and experiencing.

    It is the substrate that appears to be damaged in people with autism spectrum disorders and is apparently the biological cause of impaired social communication in people with this type of disorder.

      Why do mirror neurons work in our everyday life?

      They mainly serve so that we can be social beings, so that we take our environment into account and that we can provide appropriate social responses. In a way, they work as a social and emotional GPS, which allows you to know your surroundings to give more appropriate social responses from an understanding of what the other is doing and feeling.

      Going back to the questions at the beginning, mirror neurons are the ones we yawn when we see someone yawn. They also work to detect inconsistencies in communication, as the linguistic, motor, visual and auditory systems work simultaneously and can detect whether body language is compatible with oral speech, so that we can know whether they are telling us the language or not. truth.

      Thanks to them too, we can observe whether or not there is a link between two people who have just met., imitating gestures. We usually subconsciously tend to mirror each other’s gestures in a conversation if we are really listening.

      This imitation will be registered by the other person’s brain, a signal that you are in tune with it. Let them understand what he says and what he hears when he says it. What will happen is that in the face of imitation, more or less the same mirror neurons will be activated in the brain as in ours. In fact, we like those people more who subtly resonate in our movements.

      If you get a new job, mirror neurons will function automatically by sending and directing information about the behaviors and emotions of othersso you can know which partner you find the most sympathetic, who generates more tension, who listens attentively and who does not … and be able to respond to the environment in an adaptive way.

      Finally, it should be noted that this article emphasizes the connection of these mirror neurons with the socialization of the individual, but these cells also perform relevant functions less directly related to communication with others. They are responsible for the transfer of knowledge from one domain to another, for emotional self-regulation, for learning by imitation and a myriad of other domains.

      I hope that this area of ​​research interested you as much as it did me and that it aroused your curiosity to understand the brain and its functions.

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