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Mirror neuron: a neurological approach to empathy

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Part of the Research and Perspectives in Neurosciences book series (NEUROSCIENCE)

Summary

Humans are an exquisitely social species. Our survival and success depend critically on our ability to thrive in complex social situations. But how do we understand others? Which are the mechanisms underlying this capacity?

In the present essay we discuss a general neural mechanism (“mirror mechanism”) that enables individuals to understand the meaning of actions done by others, their intentions, and their emotions, through activation of internal representations coding motorically the observed actions and emotions.

In the first part of the essay we will show that the mirror mechanism for “cold” actions, those devoid of emotional content, is localized in the parieto-frontal cortical circuits. These circuits become active both when we do an action and when we observe another individual doing the same action. Their activity allows the observer to understand the “what” of an action.

We will show, then, that a “chained” organization of motor acts plus the mirror mechanism enable the observer to understand the intention behind an action (the “why” of an action) by observing the first motor act of an action.

Finally, we will discuss some recent data showing that the mirror mechanism localized in other centers, like the insula, enables the observer to understand the emotions of others. We will conclude briefly discussing whether these biological data allow inferences about moral behavior.

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Rizzolatti, G., Craighero, L. (2005). Mirror neuron: a neurological approach to empathy. In: Changeux, JP., Damasio, A.R., Singer, W., Christen, Y. (eds) Neurobiology of Human Values. Research and Perspectives in Neurosciences. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/3-540-29803-7_9

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