Compassion without action is enough

Mirror neurons

What exactly are mirror neurons?

Mirror neurons are a resonance system in the brain that makes other people's feelings and moods sound in the recipient. The unique thing about nerve cells is that they send out signals when someone just observes an action. The nerve cells react exactly as if you had done what you saw yourself.

A comparison from music is best: When we pluck a guitar string, we make the other strings of the instrument vibrate too, we create a resonance. To feel compassion, joy, but also pain, is only possible in this way.

The mirror neurons in the brain are special nerve cells that turn people into compassionate beings. If you observe someone cutting your finger while chopping vegetables, you experience discomfort yourself and can empathize with what the pain feels like.

We are "infected" with the feeling of the other, that is, our mirror neurons not only react when we experience suffering, pain or joy ourselves, but these nerve cells also become active when we perceive these sensations in someone else.

How were the mirror neurons discovered?

The Italian research group headed by Giacomo Rizzolatti came across the mirror cells purely by chance in 1996. At the University of Parma, the team of physiologists used chimpanzees to research how actions are planned and implemented in the brain.

In the experimental setup, the scientists wanted to find out which nerve cells in a chimpanzee connected to a measuring device become active as soon as it reaches for a nut.

The researchers made a sensational discovery: the nerve cells not only send out signals when the monkey reached for a nut itself, but also when the animal observed a team member performing the same action.

As the monkey followed the movements of the other, the nerve cells reacted as if the chimpanzee had reached for the nut itself. What was seen was "mirrored" in the chimpanzee's brain.

The researchers now called the nerve cells that triggered these reflective signals, mirror neurons. At last there was a scientific explanation for phenomena like intuition and compassion, which for a long time had only been ridiculed by natural scientists.

How are we equipped with mirror neurons?

Mirror neurons are part of the basic equipment of our brain. From birth, humans are equipped with mirror neurons, which give the infant the ability to carry out the first mirroring actions with its mother or father just a few days after birth. Early reflections are not only possible, they also correspond to the basic emotional needs of the newborn.

The ability to mirror does not develop by itself, it needs a partner. In the baby, it is the mother or another caregiver who activates the possibility of mirror actions. Children first have to learn to feel other people's feelings.

Researchers assume that the mirror neurons are fully developed between the ages of 3 and 4. From this point on, the child has their own, independent perspective on the world. The fact that the mirror neurons are active in small children becomes apparent when a child begins to comfort his mother, for example. At that moment it recognized and reflected that the mother is sad.

Previous experiences play a not insignificant role in the function of mirror neurons. Anyone who had to learn that friendly people show unexpectedly unpleasant sides, their mirror neurons will react differently to friendly people than people who have not had bad experiences.

If the ability to mirror is suppressed or not used, it is lost. "Use it or lose it" is the motto of the researchers, which applies to all nerve cell systems, not just to the mirror neurons.

Medicine in particular makes use of the functionality of mirror neurons in the rehabilitation of stroke patients. By following certain actions, patients are enabled to perform these actions themselves and their mobility is improved.

Mirror neurons can be stimulated for a lifetime and are able to make new experiences, which are stored and can then be called up again.

How do mirror neurons work?

Mirror neurons work unconsciously, we don't have to think about them. The movement patterns or body signs of the other are quickly deciphered by our brain. A reflection of what we see is created in our brain.

After the information came to our brain through the body language of the other, specific mirror neurons become active, which cause the corresponding feelings to vibrate.

Regardless of whether it is sadness, joy or anger: In a very short time the mirror neurons begin to "infect" the same state in the observing person, that is to say to transmit the same emotions. In the next step, we make sure that the feelings we are feeling are also real in the other person.

The functioning of the mirror neurons is essential for our everyday coexistence. We have saved certain patterns that tell us what certain actions mean.

Without intuitive certainties about what a given situation will immediately entail, human coexistence would be unthinkable. A few signs are enough to draw the right conclusions from other people's movements. In a full department store, we intuitively recognize where other people are going and react accordingly.

Mirror neurons lead perceived situations and actions to an end with foresight. So they give us an idea of ​​what the other person will do next. So it is possible for us to walk through a full department store without constantly bumping into others.

But we can also refuse to reflect emotions, if we are not open enough or if other strong emotions block us, then we do not react to a smile in the S-Bahn.

The mind can also be a hindrance to intuitively mirroring the right thing. Although we perceive the feelings of the other, we cannot prevent that at all, but our mind blocks a corresponding reaction.

What is the role of mirror neurons in evolution?

Since the dawn of mankind, we have been able to recognize dangers and anticipate what will happen. Our facial expressions and gestures work like a language of their own.

In the early days of man, when language was not yet developed, the ability to correctly interpret the body language of others was vital. The mirror neuron system has thus played an important role in human evolution and in the development of cultures.

For a long time, based on Darwin, research was based on the assumption that, in evolutionary terms, the strongest survived, according to the motto "survival of the fittest".

After the discovery of mirror neurons, the struggle for survival can no longer be seen as the only goal of evolution. People are dependent on both: to ensure their own survival through permanent adaptation, to recognize who and what is dangerous, and at the same time to find others who "reflect" their own feelings and needs.

The ability to mirror the emotions of others also sets us apart from animals. Nevertheless, science assumes that especially with animals that appear in schools, for example migratory birds or fish, something like mirror processes must exist.