What are mirror neurons, and how do they affect our empathy?

mirror neurons empathy

Yawning is contagious, so is laughter. How come we look up to each other’s eyes when a comedian makes us laugh? Why do you open your mouth when your baby keeps his lips together while eating? It’s the mirror neurons at work here.

In this article, I’ll explain what mirror neurons are, how they work, and how we can make the most of them for better mutual understanding.

What are mirror neurons?

These special kind of neurons are specialized neurons in our brains that allow us to imitate other people’s behavior and interact better with the other.1 Scientists have long noted that animals mirror each other’s facial expressions, such as smiling, frowning, and everything in between, as an essential means of communication.

Rhesus monkeys do this, for example, using the grimaces they make at each other. That is how it works in humans too. The research on mirror neurons was started in 1992 by Italian scientists.

How do mirror neurons work?

The effect needs no explanation: “see monkey, do monkey”. We communicate from person to person or primate to primate, and the mirroring of behavior almost always takes place at an unconscious level without the intervention of conscious thought. In essence, they reflect each other’s expressions and the emotions that accompany them. This is why they are the pillars of empathy.

Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explains it this way in a 2008 interview with Scientific American:

“When I see you smile, my mirror neurons also fire, initiating a cascade of neural activity. I don’t have to draw any conclusions about what you feel. I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you experience.”

Paul Ekman and facial expressions

It was the researcher Paul Ekman who studied facial expressions during the 1960s. He traveled all over the world, even to the isolated tribes in New Guinea. He found that there are universal facial expressions as well as local ones.

After his travels, he continued research about facial expressions for another 40 years. His findings of facial expression and mirror neurons are fascinating. By simply mimicking the other, you can experience what the other one feels. This explains why mirroring someone else creates a strong (emotional) bond between two people or animals. His book Emotions Revealed was a big eye-opener for me personally.

Make mirror neurons work for you

We have all had a colleague who can only complain, always only emphasize the negative and leave a negative mark on every working day. You may have noticed how you got home after work in a bad mood because of your colleague’s negativity.

By using what you have now learned about mirror neurons, you can mislead your colleague (in a positive way). Precisely by acting cheerfully and letting you know that all these negative situations lead nowhere or an ugly look, your colleague, whether he/she wants it or not, will reflect on your behavior on an unconscious level.

Even if your colleague is a “die-hard” and yet falls back into the negative patterns, you can condition him/her by using the action of mirror neurons by being the “ever happy co-worker.”


Mirror neurons are the only brain cells that appear to be specialized to code other people’s actions, and they are essential for social interactions. Without these cells, we would probably be a lot more blind to other people’s intentions and emotions.

So do you give a smile? You get it back. Do you give someone attention? You get that back. It works just like the Law of Attraction: send positivity into the universe, and you will be heard. Let your mirror neurons work for you and get the most out of it!

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