How Mirror Neurons Signal Empathy and Moral Decision-Making
Mirror neurons are a particular type of neuron (brain cell) that is equally active when we are performing an activity or watching someone else perform that activity. Interestingly, they were first discovered in the brains of monkeys and have been shown to have a role in imitation (think, “Monkey See, Monkey Do”). But mirror neurons also have been shown to play an important role in empathy, our ability to feel another’s happiness or pain, and most recently their activity has been shown to predict moral choices that involve others.
Moral dilemmas that require conscious deliberation and that involve the impact of our actions on others were examined in the study and the researchers found that the greater activation of mirror neurons in the inferior frontal cortex correctly predicted a decision not to take an action which could harm another person.
This does not mean that a person won’t make a decision to harm someone when a greater good is at stake, where deliberate, analytical processes may outweigh the empathy being experienced.
The research raises interesting questions about how brains develop empathy and how psychiatric or developmental disorders that impair social communication and empathy may be treated. The research was conducted by scientists at UCLA.