Mirror Neurons, Empathy, and the First Memories of Life

How neuroscience informs the meaning of early childhood recollections.

Posted Mar 19, 2017

Source: Pixabay

In the early 1970's, I attended a counseling and psychology conference in which a presenter interpreted the meaning of a person's early memory. I was impressed by the accuracy of the observations and wanted to know more about the procedure. The presenter only said that experience makes a difference, but that was not particularly helpful. In recent years, I developed the Dawn of Memories model in an attempt to clarify an early recollection interpretation approach (Clark, 2013).

As a feature of the process, the subjective reactions of the person interpreting a first memory contributes to empathically understanding another's remembrance. With the emergence of current research in neuroscience, this internal experience of an individual has become clearer for grasping the meaning of first memories (Watson & Greenberg, 2009). In particular, mirror neurons activate common neural circuits between individuals in dialogue with each other.  

When a person narrates a first memory, the mirror neuron system triggers visual details in the brain of the individual listening to the remembrance. This "sharing" of neural circuits also stimulates similar emotional and sensory experiences of each person (Gallese, 2009). The internal reactions of the listener forms a critical way of knowing through the process of empathy.

In an early recollection example, Alphonso, a barber in his 60's, related the following memory from his early childhood in rural Italy: "I remember my mother letting me bring a quart of milk to my grandmother. I walked to her house which was about a mile away down a dirt road. When I got to her house, she gave me a piece of candy."  Alphonso added that he was about 5 or 6- years- old at the time. The most vivid part of the memory for Alphonso was "seeing my grandmother and getting a piece of candy." At that point, he felt "happy."

When listening to (or reading) Alphonso's early recollection, evoking imaginative scenes is possible through images that fire in mutual neural circuits. As you read an account of the memory, you likely pictured a little boy walking along a dirt road carefully clutching a quart of a milk. Considering the age of Alphonso at the time of the remembrance, you probably visualized the quart bottle being made of glass.  Upon arriving at his grandmother's house, Alphonso's broad smile and his delighted grandmother receiving the milk ran like a silent movie in your head.

For fleeting moments, you possibly felt what it was like to be Alphonso through his first memory originating over 60 years ago. You may also have experienced a sense of calm and a pleasurable emotional reaction when his grandmother grasped the milk bottle. Identifying with the caring presence of Alphonso is possible through the shared human response of empathy.

When listening to a person render an early recollection, an individual also has the advantage of receiving nonverbal and verbal communication on an interpersonal level. In this regard, Alphonso's voice was steady and emotionally uplifting as he recalled his first memory. His face also appeared serene and composed during this brief period. From an objective stance, Alphonso's early recollection represents a universal quality that could occur in most cultures across the world. At the same time, Alphonso's tranquil walk and family interactions seem to convey a touch of Italy.

Alphonso's early recollection suggests insights into his personality and way of being. A possible core theme of Alphonso's remembrance is experiencing an active life in cooperation with other people. In his daily interactions, Alphonso is steady in his care and devotion that he extends towards other people. In particular, his family and friends are recipients of his thoughtful and endearing ways. Relating to specific personality dimensions, Alphonso enjoys being active through a number of physical and social pursuits.  He has a kinship with others in the form of social interest, and experiences a sense of belonging and significance. As in his first memory, Alphonso has an optimistic outlook on life, and is self-reliant and conscientious.

Neuroscience as a contemporary discipline contributes to clarifying the meaning of early recollections as a projective technique. In particular, the operation of mirror neurons deepens an empathic understanding of individuals.


Clark, A. J. (2013). Dawn of memories: The meaning of early recollections in life. Lanham, MD: Rowman

          & Littlefield.

Gallese, V. (2009). Mirror neurons, embodied simulation, and the neural basis of social identification.

          Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 19, 519-536

Watson, J. C. & Greenberg, L. (2009). Empathic resonance: A neuroscience perspective. In J. Decety & W. Ickes

          (Eds.). The social neuroscience of empathy (pp. 125-137). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

More Posts