A Look in the Mirror Neuron: Empathy and Addiction
Research links mirror neurons with aspects of both addiction and recovery.
Posted Jul 17, 2019
"It seems we're wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different. At the root, as humans we identify the person we're facing as someone like ourselves." —Neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese, MD, Ph.D.
Ever wondered why you always feel the need to yawn when you’ve seen someone else yawn? Or why infants mimic mouth movements and facial expressions of their caregivers? Or why you may scratch your chin at the same time as someone else scratches their chin while you’re talking to them?
It may seem like a simple unconscious reaction to what we see, but there’s actually something far more complex happening in our brains. Our brains are made up of many neurons and cells, but it’s a special group of cells called a mirror neuron that is responsible for this phenomena. These cells allow us to learn through imitation so that we respond not only to our own internal states or environmental stimuli but to actions, movements and emotional states of other people. If you’re thinking this might also be related to our ability to empathize with others (i.e. we observe the emotional experience of someone else and then connect with that emotion within ourselves) then you’d be correct. But we’ll come to that later.
How was the mirror neuron discovered?
Firstly, where did the idea of a mirror neuron come from? It’s a relatively recent discovery, dating back to just 1996 when Italian scientists Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese and their team were observing monkey’s brains. With brain imaging technology, they observed certain cells in the monkey’s brain activated when a monkey performed an action and when the monkey watched another monkey perform that same action. And so, the term “mirror neuron” was coined.
The concept has since been studied vigorously in infants to understand how the early mirror neuron system functions. From what we know, parent-infant interactions heavily influence development. The functional architecture of mother-infant communication, and the development of infant social expressiveness in the first two months (1). It’s those early years when the foundations for empathy are laid and mirror neurons may also play a part in the impact that maternal depression can have on a baby. If a baby is exposed to a "sad" face, then the baby will begin to imitate the sad face too, and since the environmental response to a child’s sad face is similar to that of an adult there can be a corresponding emotional experience (2).
Research in this field demonstrates just how important mirror neurons are in our emotional development.
How do mirror neurons actually work?
Neurons are special cells that transmit neurochemical impulses and commands within our central nervous system as well as to our muscles. We have approximately 100 billion neurons in our brains and each one makes numerous connections to other neurons or other cells. These neurochemical impulses allow the neurons to communicate with each other so that we can move and process information.
Neurons allow us to react to our environment. For example, if you place your hand on a hot pan, the sensation on your hand sends a signal via neurons to the central nervous system signaling excessive heat and pain and then stimulates the muscles in the arm to remove the hand from the hot pan.
Mirror neurons are located throughout the brain, including in the motor-cortex, which fires in response to motor commands (for example, when you pick up a toy off the floor or flick hair out of your face). A subset of these neurons, the mirror neurons, are activated when you watch another person perform the same action. Mirror neurons are fired not only when we perform an act (motor command), but when we observe someone else do the same thing.
“We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.” —G. Rizzolatti.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s the mirror neuron that makes us yawn after seeing someone else yawn, and it also activates when you pucker your face after seeing someone eat something sour, crying during an emotional scene in a movie and laughing when someone else laughs.
Mirror neurons and empathy
Without mirror neurons, we’d probably be oblivious to the thoughts, emotions and actions of other people.
For example, if you see someone get a paper cut, you may flinch and feel their pain. The same neurons (although only a subset of them) that respond to my finger getting a paper cut will also fire if I see someone else getting a paper cut. There are non-mirror pain neurons and there are mirror neuron pain neurons. So mirror neurons are responsible for empathizing with others’ pain (3). In order to truly empathize with your pain, however, I'll need to have an emotional response (not just a physical response).
Mirror neurons appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. Instead of our brains using logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions, we understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. Mirror neurons appear to allow us to make sense of other people’s intentions as well as their actions, as well as interpret facial expressions.
There have been findings showing that individuals with smaller amygdalae are more likely to present as having sociopathy (4). While the research is limited, I speculate that this may be, at least partially due, to them having fewer mirror neurons in that area and therefore less of the ability to empathize with others’ anxiety, fear and other forms of discomfort. Of course, more research is needed in this area.
What do mirror neurons have to do with addiction?
It may all connect to the insula. German neuroscientist Christian Keysers and his team in the Netherlands have found strong mirror neuron activity in the brain organ known as the insula. Interestingly, in an unrelated study, Antoine Bechara of USC discovered a potential link between the insula and addiction. They examined patients with a nicotine addiction who had an injury to the insula and remarkably found that the patients simply “forgot” to smoke. The urge and addiction were completely gone (5).
The insula is usually associated with the processing of physical sensations and could potentially be linked to self-awareness.
Research still needs to assess the hypothesis that mirror neurons in the insula play a role in addiction, but there are other indicators that addiction may be linked in some way with the mirror neuron system. For example, the social isolation displayed in many individuals with an addiction (also explained by other factors such as shame, stigma and rejection), could be explored from this mirror neuron perspective, especially given the research showing a connection between limitations in empathy development and brain development. Could there be a similar finding relating brain volume in a certain area with increased empathy or sensitivity?
Furthermore, when we look at approaches to addiction recovery, it becomes clear that the social aspect is crucial. Group therapy is often seen as a key to recovery, with properly conducted groups providing positive emotional reinforcement as well as education and connection. We can now hypothesize that this feeling of resonance occurring in the group process stems from the activation of our mirror neuron system. This resonance may lead to cognitive insights, and it may very well have an emotional component, but the core energy released is neither cognitive not emotional, but experiential.
If you’ve ever wondered why seeing someone figure things out in a group makes you feel better yourself, you don’t have to wonder.
What can you do with this newfound knowledge of mirror neurons?
The mirror neuron system is a tricky one, and it can either drive you towards unhealthy habits or patterns or can drive you towards adopting a healthier lifestyle. Also, every brain cell and every neural system does not operate in a vacuum. Everything in the brain is interconnected so that the activity of each cell reflects the dynamic interactions with other brain cells and other neural systems. Remember, you aren't a victim of circumstance. You have the power to overcome your addiction by changing your environment and your interaction with it.
How can we take advantage of mirror neurons?
- Happiness is more contagious than sadness, so try to consume more positive media, surround yourself with happy people, and listen to music with positive energy, message and frequency.
- Find out what the life of a happy and positive person looks like and then do the things they do. Work out, smile more, have a well-balanced diet, write affirmations, and meditate.
- Be leery of your own emotional state and how contagious it might be. Instead of reacting in the moment, give yourself space to think.
If you want to be part of a positive social community committed to improved health and well-being on your path to recovery, then join the IGNTD network today.
1. Murray L, De Pascalis L, Bozicevic L, Hawkins L, Sclafani V, Ferrari PF. The functional architecture of mother-infant communication, and the development of infant social expressiveness in the first two months. Scientific Reports. 2016;6:39019.
2. Simpson EA, Murray L, Paukner A, Ferrari PF. The mirror neuron system as revealed through neonatal imitation: presence from birth, predictive power and evidence of plasticity. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2014;369(1644):20130289.
3. Wicker B, Keysers C, Plailly J, Royet JP, Gallese V, Rizzolatti G. Both of us disgusted in My insula: the common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. Neuron. 2003;40(3):655-64.
4. Blair RJR. Neurobiological basis of psychopathy. British Journal of Psychiatry. 2018;182(1):5-7.
5. Naqvi NH, Rudrauf D, Damasio H, Bechara A. Damage to the Insula Disrupts Addiction to Cigarette Smoking. Science. 2007;315(5811):531-4.