The Social Brain

By Katie Goldsmith | March 10, 2010 | 0 comments

Is it really possibly to put yourself in someone else's shoes?

Though this may seem like an old adage that's easier said than done, a wave of new research suggests that our brains are actually wired to help us take the perspective of other people, a basic form of empathy. This research has zeroed in on "mirror neurons"; when we watch other people perform an action, these neurons fire as if we were performing that action ourselves. But are some of us better empathizers than others?

In a recent study, published in Psychological Science, psychologist Kimberly Montgomery and colleagues tried to determine why we sometimes see more neuron activity in certain people's brains: Are some people's brains better equipped to take the perspective of others, or are mirror neurons more likely to fire when we observe social actions as opposed to non-social ones?

In the study, first participants were given a survey to gauge their perspective-taking abilities. Then they viewed video clips of social facial expressions like happiness or anger or non-social facial movements like sneezing or blinking; after that, they had to imitate the expression they saw in the video clips. Finally, they had to act out a word or phrase describing an expression. While they did all this, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track their brain activity.

The results suggested that people with an average or above average ability to take the perspective of others show significantly more mirror neuron activity when they passively viewed social facial expressions than when they viewed nonsocial facial movements. On the other hand, people with low perspective-taking scores didn't show more mirror neuron activity when they viewed social facial movements.

What this means, the researchers propose, is that the ability to empathize with others is linked to a mirror neuron system that's finely tuned to respond to the social information we get from others. Interestingly, they note that mirror neurons responded like this only when the participants observed socially informative actions in others, not when they produced these actions themselves.

Based on these findings, Montgomery and her colleagues suggest that our brains are really social brains, wired to help us empathize with other people. Mirror neurons, they write, are "engaged selectively to simulate actions that are most informative for understanding the mental states of others."

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About The Author

Katie Goldsmith is a Greater Good editorial assistant.


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