We Are Hardwired For Empathy

by Eva Ritvo, M.D. (cross-posted from Psychology Today)

As a practicing psychiatrist, I have gathered my top seven neuroscience tips for vitality that have proven to be useful for virtually all of my patients, and I am eager to share them with you. In my previous article, you learned about neuroplasticity. Today, in my second vitality tip, you’ll learn how to wield the power of mirror neurons.

Our brains have “mirror neurons” that fire when we watch others engage in activities and express emotions. Scientists discovered mirror neurons by accident. They had monkeys in their lab wired to see what part of their brain they were using.One afternoon, the scientists took an ice cream break (score one for Ben and Jerry’s) and to their great surprise, they noticed the portion of the monkey’s brain responsible for tongue movement began to fire.

Remember the old phrases, “when you smile, the whole world smiles with you”, “a happy wife is a happy life”? Well, that’s because of mirror neurons. The reverse is true too.  “A family is held hostage to its sickest member” “You are only has happy as your least happy child.” We are wired to feel one another’s pleasures and pains. Our survival depends on it.

Again we need to look at our most vulnerable members of society to understand the role of mirror neurons.  Our young are born extremely vulnerable. They cannot use words to express their needs for one to several years. Thus, we must be wired to communicate in non-verbal ways. Our most important interactions, those essential for the survival of our next generation are entirely non-verbal. The smile of a child is infectious and their cry is unbearable for most of us because they so powerfully impact our brain via mirror neurons.