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I Know How You Feel: Mirror Neurons and Emotional Contagion

by | Jan 4, 2023 | Blog, Science

A small private school in New York uses CalmConnect several times each day in every one of their classrooms. Most of the students (ages 5-21) are quadriplegic or paraplegic; many are nonverbal. As we viewed pictures of the children, we were struck by how much shared ‘motion’ there was in the absence of physical movement. “Not only has the program helped to calm the students who are over stimulated but when the students are feeling tired and listless we have also found the Focus and Joy programs stimulate them and help to energize them enough to be able to actively participate in the classroom once again. Even those students who had very limited movement or who could not move were still gaining the benefits of the program just by observing and listening. I cannot tell you how much your program has aided us. It has changed our classrooms and the way our students interact without distracting from our daily schedule, without needed excessive amounts of time or specialized training.”

Giacomo Rizzolatti is a neurophysiologist at the University of Parma in Italy. In 1995 he was leading a team of researchers as they mapped the activity of the F5 area of the brain in macaque monkeys. F5 is in the premotor cortex and contains millions of neurons that specialize in ‘coding’ for specific motor behaviors of the hand: Grasping, reaching, holding, and bringing food to mouth. During a quiet break in monitoring, while the monkey was waiting for the next experiment, one of the researchers was moving about in the lab and happened to reach for something. The electrodes on the monkey’s F5 area responded, even though the monkey wasn’t moving his own arm, but simply watching the researcher’s arm move.

At first it was considered a fluke, since scientists believed that nerve cells for action were separate and distinct from nerve cells for sensory observations. Additional observation and testing uncovered the existence of mirror neurons, as though the brain of the monkey and the brain of the researcher were somehow synchronized, and the researcher’s physical movement existed inside the monkey.

Research confirms that human brains also demonstrate a profound mirroring effect. We understand other people by performing an act of internal mimicry, by letting some of the actions and feelings of others into our own heads.

There is a brain wide mirroring system, shared by a number of regions and pathways. The imitating effect occurs as nerves in the frontal and prefrontal cortex begin to fire along with neurons in the somatosensory cortex (responsible for bodily sensations.) Deep inside your brain, you are experiencing what you see.

Mirror neurons allow us to know what people are doing, thinking, and feeling, as the mirroring system provides input not just about sensations and actions, but emotions as well. Mirror neurons provide a comprehensive, detailed imitation of what the other person is experiencing. You can almost instantly pick up on the emotion of another person.

If you ‘catch’ a smile on the face of a complete stranger or experience the tension of your own heart as your partner silently, coldly enters the room, you’ve experienced the effects of the brain wide mirroring system through emotional contagion. Your neural pathways take in another person’s feelings and replicate them inside of your nervous system.

The mirroring system activates even when another person gives only a hint that they are about to do something, an important part of the complex act of empathy. From Marco Iacoboni, ”The mirroring system helps us in understanding our existential condition and our involvement with others. It shows that we are not alone but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another.”

The ability to modulate emotions is critical to maintaining healthy relationships. When someone else is sad or in great pain, it’s important to be able to empathize without feeling the exact same emotion or movement. When the mirroring system fires in empathic response, it doesn’t duplicate someone else’s feelings. It simply provides a hint of what they are feeling or doing. We are physiologically, emotionally, and neurologically in sync with them. It reminds us that as human beings; we are never alone in the world.

Vittorio Gallese, a neurophysiologist in the Parma lab, described the role of the mirroring system in human interactions, “The neural mechanism is involuntary, with it we don’t have to think about what other people are doing or feeling, we simply know.”

Now imagine what it would be like not to ‘simply know’ what other people are doing or feeling; much like a child on the autism spectrum, or an adult so traumatized that they are unable to guess at the emotions of a person walking toward them. When someone is traumatized, challenged, or under near constant stress, it is possible to view other people as adversaries, not knowing their intentions.

Neurological challenges, past experience, and the environment can actively work against the natural physiology of connection. In a competitive, violent world a person may experience so much pain that the only way to survive and to thrive is to ignore the signals of the mirroring system. Mirroring activities happen involuntarily, but it is possible to consciously reject them and over time develop the capacity to dissociate from your own body to feel safe. This makes it harder to decode the feelings of others as well as to identify the sensations of your own feeling states.

The mirroring system can thrive only when it’s used repeatedly. In some people on the autism spectrum, or dealing with other challenges, it’s as though the mirrors might be broken, or at the very least, dormant; making it impossible for them to understand the feelings of others, as well as their own.