I am reading Paul Cartledge’s fascinating account of the heroic Spartan resistance in 480 BC to the Persian invasion of Thermopylae (Thermopylae: the Battle that Changed the World). I came across an epigram quoting the Israeli writer, Amos Oz, who said,

“I believe that imagining the other is a powerful antidote to fanaticism and hatred.”

This quote is from his Goethe Prize speech given on 28 August 2005. “Imagining the other” – what an insightful way to describe the essential ingredient of what we call “empathy”. Which begs the question, at least in my mind, why do we empathize? And how did the capacity of human beings “to imagine the other” come into being? You know where I am going…right to the brain.


Mirror, mirror, in the brain

In our brain, there are specialized neurons called “mirror cells”. These neurons get input from a variety of sources, such as the visual cortex and auditory centers, whose function is to, well, mirror the outside world. For instance, if we see somebody hurting, we almost physically “feel her pain”. This is the source of the well-known phenomenon of the prospective father experiencing labor pains when the mother goes into labor. When we feel sad or depressed after spending time with a depressed person, it is because of empathy. MRI studies show that the mirror cells light up (are activated) when study subjects are shown “empathy-inducing” videos (a.k.a. “tear-jerkers”).

This is a fascinating subject that touches not only on neurobiology, but also on what makes us social beings. How does empathy benefit humans? There must be some evolutionary advantage to having empathy hard-wired into our brain. It turns out, the original purpose of mirror cells probably was not to empathize, but to anticipate. Just think of it, you are negotiating with a tough and shrewd opponent—wouldn’t you have a great advantage if you could “get into his head”? If you see a lion walking in the distance, anticipating what the lion was up to and where it might go could, perhaps, save your life. But wait, there is more!


Babies demonstrate “mirroring” behavior, too

Babies have been known to follow and emulate the sounds and sights in their environment. Have you ever watched an infant a few weeks of age smile back at you? Indeed, one of the tests of their neurological intactness is their ability to follow a moving finger. And this capacity to internalize the outside world is mediated by those wonderful “mirrors” in their brains.


Empathy: An unintended consequence or mirroring?

It is a short leap from copying and internalizing somebody’s feelings to feeling empathy. Apparently, humans are not the only living creatures to demonstrate empathy. Many animals have made the leap from mirroring to empathy. Elephant mothers gently nurse and protect their helpless newborns and they have been documented to grieve over the death of one of their tribe. Similarly, lion moms join together to raise, protect, and teach life-skills to their pride’s cubs. I could go and on with examples from the animal world, but the evolutionary advantage of such trait of empathy is self-evident—or so you might think.

But consider the alternative hypothesis: Maybe animals developed the capacity to internalize the outside world to better anticipate danger. The capacity to empathize just “came with the territory” as an unintended consequence of the development of the brain. Such a debate is raging in the community of evolutionary biologists, not only with respect to the trait of empathy, but also with such baffling phenomena as religious faith and the belief in God. I promise to expand on the latter in a future posting.

For us, laymen and mere humans, this debate may seem like an academic exercise. Who really cares? What really matters at the end of the day is that we are endowed with this wonderful capacity to empathize. Hooray for mirror cells…here’s a toast to you! If we could find a way to coax neuronal cells into developing into mirror cells, perhaps we could banish the “fanaticism and hatred” that Amos Oz was talking about.

BTW, I dedicate this article to TDWI’s Pat Salber, whose birthday is today. Pat, my heartfelt empathy!

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.