Day 042 - Mirroring brain states

Submitted by Sam on 2 July, 2011 - 01:46

The principle of emotional contagion describes the tendency of emotional states to quickly spread around a group through the mimicry of expressions and behaviour, allowing the rapid dissemination of information through the transference of emotional signals. This system of non-verbal interaction enables rapid communication about risk and reward, and is beneficial to groups of social animals, mediating and facilitating interaction.

The discovery of mirror neurons by a group of Italian neurophysiologists in the 1990s has triggered research which is uncovering the neural mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon, showing how the actions of individual neurons can correlate to emotions and the empathetic understanding of emotions in others.

When a person (or a primate – the original experimental evidence was derived from macaque monkeys) performs a specific action, certain neurons in the front of their brain fire, commanding or encoding that particular action. A subset of these neurons, the mirror neurons, will also fire when that person sees another person performing the same action, “mirroring” the other person's view by performing a neural-simulation of their action.

A variety of research has corroborated the relationships between mirror neurons and emotional transference. An fMRI study was conducted in which participants were presented with malodorous smells and then videos showing the emotional facial expressions of disgust. The core findings of the study concluded that the same sites in the brain were activated by the actual disgusting stimulus as by the observation of faces expressing disgust, showing that merely observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion. 1

The findings of this study illustrate how emotional contagion can function as a primitive mechanism to protect young infants (and young monkeys) from food-poisoning, by transferring the neural correlate of the emotion of disgust through facial expressions alone.

This is a highly effective method to transfer knowledge, goals and values without the need for sophisticated cognitive skills, relying on a “common substrate for feeling” which allows people to simulate each other in order to empathetically understand them, all without the need for language.

  • 1. Wicker, Bruno, Christian Keysers, Jane Plailly, Jean-Pierre Royet, Vittorio Gallese, and Giacomo Rizzolatti. "Both of Us Disgusted in My Insula The Common Neural Basis of Seeing and Feeling Disgust." Neuron 40.3 (2003): 655-64. Print.
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