Scouring the Brain to Find the Source of Empathy

Every invention starts with an idea. Every act of kindness starts with mirror neurons firing in someone’s brain. Let me explain.

Neurons are electrically excitable cells in the nervous system that process and transmit information. They are the core components of our nervous system. Scientists estimate that there are 80-100 billion neurons in our brains. Mirror neurons are specialized neurons that fire in our brains when we see something happen to someone else.

If you’ve ever looked at another person and thought, “That could be me”, scientists say that’s your mirror neurons at work.

In a negative sense, your mirror neurons kick in when you see someone who is in a difficult situation in life because of a number of poor choices and think, “Well, I can see how I could have made similar choices and ended up in the same situation as this person.”

In a positive sense, it happens when you see someone who is very successful and admire their accomplishments and it motivates you to do whatever it takes to reach the same level of achievement.

In both cases you see yourself, not in a literal mirror but in someone else. That is how mirror neurons work.

Then there are cases, both positive and negative, where you have no reaction whatsoever to the situation another person is in. You don’t see yourself in either their positive or negative situation.

As one scientist has pointed out, if you are poked in the thumb by a sharp object it will cause a number of neurons to fire in your brain, letting you know “That hurt!” But if instead you see someone else get poked in the thumb by a sharp object it will cause a different set of neurons to fire, namely, your mirror neurons. They generate a reaction like, “I bet that hurt!”

Mirror neurons were discovered when a team of Italian researchers were studying monkeys. They noticed that certain cells in the monkeys’ brains activated both when a monkey performed an action and when that monkey watched another monkey perform the same action.

As with most science, some scientists are keener on mirror neurons than others. Some see mirror neurons as the cornerstone of human empathy, language and other vital processes. Other scientists need to see more research before they are convinced.

V.S. Ramachandran, a distinguished professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, is one of mirror neurons’ most ardent scientific champions.

But these questions still have to be answered, “Why do we react, either negatively or positively, when we see things happen to others? Where does empathy come from? Why are we moved to help others?” Is it just a specific set of neurons firing in our brains or is it some other influence?

Christians believe that our motivation to help others comes from our faith. We see all the help God has given us through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and, since God has no need of any help from us, we are moved to show our gratitude to God by helping others. If it is our mirror neurons that give us empathy then it is God who created them for the very purpose of motivating us care for others.

I hope that mirror neurons do not go the way of evolution. Evolution has done a pretty devastating job of pushing God out of the whole topic of how the world came into existence. It would be truly unfortunate if mirror neurons become the way for God to be pushed out of the topic of empathy and compassion.

I’m so fascinated by mirror neurons and the topic of empathy I’ve decided to change the name of my blog from “What to Expect When” to “Mirror Neurons.” My goal going forward will be to write about things that interest you enough to stimulate your mirror neurons to want to read what I’ve written.

I also hope to promote empathy. As I said above, every invention starts with an idea. Every act of kindness starts with mirror neurons firing in someone’s brain. But for those mirror neurons to fire you first have to read or hear about what’s going on in the lives of others which is what I hope to accomplish through my blog.

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