“Here’s a lump of flesh about three pounds that you can hold in the palm of your hand but it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space, it can contemplate the meaning of infinity…” says V. S. Ramachandran at the beginning of this 2009 TED talk about mirror neurons. I love listening to this guy. As far as I’m concerned he’s doing some of the most fascinating work on the planet.
Anyways…what are mirror neurons? They’re a subset of our motor command neurons. Motor command neurons fire when we perform an action, such as my fingers typing this post right now. If you were here watching me type, your mirror neurons for typing would be firing.
What good are mirror neurons? Well, for one thing, they help us learn. One of the ways we learn is by imitation, and mirror neurons give us a head start on that as their firing begins to train us in doing something we have not yet physically done. And that’s friggin cool.
Another thing they are implicated in is how we form relationships with other people. When we interact with people and have some interest in them, we begin to unconsciously mimic some of their actions, facial expressions, body postures, and mannerisms. We notice this about each other, usually unconsciously, and it helps draw us closer together. That’s your mirror neurons at work.
So, mirror neurons are likely to be, if not the basis, at least one of the most important foundations of empathy. They very well may be what makes societies possible.