Mirror neurons allow us to become one with another human – neuroscientist

The human brain is what makes us who we are, yet it remains one of the biggest mysteries for humankind. Today’s guest has shed light on one of the deepest mechanisms of our minds – said to be the driver behind empathy. Mirror neurons allow us to feel what other people are feeling. Are humans programmed to be social? Why then is violence so widespread? And how can the latest discoveries about the human brain help cure autism? We ask leading neuroscientist, and the man who discovered mirror neurons, Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, it's really great to have you on our program.

Giacomo Rizzolatti: Thank you very much.

SS: So, let's start from the beginning. You've discovered mirror neurons. They're responsible for people's ability to understand other people's actions, they're responsible for compassion, they're responsible for empathy - so logically, are those little cells in your brain the very thing that make us human?

GR: No, it's not true because, actually, also, monkeys have them… mirror is a mechanism which transforms sensory representation into motor representation. So, I go to a bar and see somebody grasping a cup of coffee, I have the same motor representation in my brain - he's grasping coffee. So this mechanism, it's very ancient, it's present also in the monkey and other people - not my group - discovered it in the birds. So, some birds have this mechanism. So then, in humans, it has been enriched and transformed, but it's not exclusive for human beings.

SS: So why is it that in humans it actually incites empathy and compassion and not in monkeys?

GR: Why humans - I don't know. Certainly, human "mirror" mechanism is much more diffused. The best example - because it's difficult to speak about compassion, because what compassion means for animals, it's not clear. The mother loves the small cubs, the small children, even dogs or cats, so some kind of compassion should be present also in animals, but there's something which is typically human - imitation. We are able to imitate and monkeys, even chimps, are unable to do it or do very little.

SS: We're going to talk about imitation a bit later in detail, but I still want to get back to how our mirror neurons differ from those of monkeys, or animals, or birds. Is it that our mirror neurons themselves are more developed or is it just that we are more complex creatures?

GR: No, we have more... the mirror mechanism is present in many centers, so it's present, for example, in center related to empathy, to emotion and so on. So, I think, in the animals they are much less developed in the sense. The neurons are always the same, they have the same size and so on. But the connections are much diffused and rich in humans. The mechanism, it's flexible. So if you have been born  in the family which is violent and mother doesn't like you, the father beats you - very likely this mechanism will be somehow suppressed, and you also will be a rather bad man. Then, a point which I often stress, is ideology. If you take some ideology, like Nazism, what happened in  Germany, it's terrible during Nazi period, because one of the most civilized countries in the world decided that Jews are not humans, are untermensch - that was the word, and therefore they can be killed and destroyed. So the mechanism - it's very flexible and weak, so ideology should reinforce it.

SS: So it can be very fruitful and at the same time very dangerous because it's so volatile?

GR: It's always fruitful, but the culture should increase it rather than destroy it. So, it's always fruitful....

SS: But I am saying that it’s so vulnerable, but you can actually...

GR: True, it's very vulnerable. If you think that we can also, in the normal life, modulate it - think about policemen - a policeman can be very harsh, but that's good because if the police is too good, it's not a good policeman. The surgeon cuts, sees blood, but he doesn't start crying, because that's his job. So the mechanism can be modulated even in the normal person. But we think about the society.

SS: But from what I understand, you, in the basis of everything, believe in the good of the human nature, so you're saying that empathy is a biological trait in person?

GR: I think the humans are born essentially altruistic with a strong feeling towards the other. Otherwise the men would never have children, they would throw away...

SS: So what you're saying makes all the economy theories wrong, because economists are actually saying that self-interests is what drives humanity, that's the main thing behind it...

GR: Not completely true, because if you think about Adam Smith - he's the founder of the liberal economy, and he wrote, before his most famous book which is the Wealth of Nations, in another one about the moral sentiment and he also said that... there's a very nice sentence in which he said: "although a person can be very egoistic, still, he's sensitive to the state of the other, and likes when the other is happy". So even in economy there's this idea that it's not only egoism which drives the person.

SS: You brought up violence earlier on - when you witness cruelty, or you witness violence, you often empathise with the victim, but you also are mirroring that crime, right? If you're witnessing violence, does that make you, indirectly, the victim of the crime, because you're mirroring the crime? Because, right now, when you turn on TV, all you see is violence: violence in news, blockbusters are violent, video games are very violent - so, it's very important for us, the new generation, and the young generation, to understand to what extent the violence that we don't experience physically on us, but the one we witness, affects our brains - can you explain that to me?

GR: I think that essentially, we became used to it, so we don't feel so strongly as it was 20 or 30 years ago. So we see all the time violence on the TV, so it became something which is really "I don't care so much". We don't think it's true. It's completely different - we're used to see it in the movie, but we know that it's not true violence. If you see violence in the streets, it will be completely different. There's a very interesting experiment done in Japan, in which they show to children film with violence and then a play with violence, and the fact was that it was completely different - they were really scared when they saw violence in the theater, and they were rather less scared when they saw it in the film. So the real life is different from what we see in the TV.

SS: I'm also trying to figure out if violent behaviour in general can contagious. For instance, if you look at the Sandy Hook shooter, who attacked the elementary school in America, police found paper clippings that he have saved from Norway's Breivik who had massacred young people a year before.

GR: That is true, but that thing is not only about violence, we tend to imitate behaviour of others.

SS: So it's not just violence.

GR: It's not just violence.

SS: So we can keep on watching Tarantino films? It's okay?

GR: Yes.

SS: So, what about blind or deaf people? Do they also have mirror...?

GR: Yes.

SS: How are they actually activated?

GR: I done experiment with blind people and they have the mirror mechanism related to audition and to tactile modality. For example, you can recognize many actions by sound, and they recognize it even better than people who have good sight.

SS: Because they're more sensitive and it's more developed?...

GR: Because they are compelled to use this modality.

SS: So, do mirror neurons actually form our perception of art?

GR: We know that people who know how to play piano, and they hear music, they have the resonance in their brain which is much more different from the other people. Then, there's a very nice experiment with dancers - so, classical ballet dancers, when they see other people dancing, they have a very strong reaction in their brain, and in the people who are unable to dance, it's very weak. It's interesting that if you see another type of dancing, like capoeira, which is a brazilian type of dancing, for classical ballet dancer - it's nothing. They are naive exactly as me or you. Instead, when capoeira dancer sees somebody dancing capoeira, they have a very strong mirroring effect.

SS: What is it so new and groundbreaking about the mirror neurons that we don't already know? I mean, it's obvious that when you see someone eating on TV, you get hungry and when you see someone beating up a child, you get emotional, so what is it so groundbreak about mirror neurons?

GR: The groundbreaking in emotion for example - it's easier to understand for normal people - is that I can understand an emotion in two ways - one way, it's cognitive way - for example, I read: "In Baghdad, 20 people have been killed", and I say "Oh, my goodness, it's a pity", but my heart has not increased beating, my eyes are normal, my blood pressure is normal. Instead, the mechanism we described, is that if I feel pain or I see pain in you, the same neuron activates. So you and me are the same person. It's not a cognitive understanding, I not just understand that you are in pain, but I feel the pain. That's the big thing about the mirror neurons.

SS: So do you need to visualize or view something in order to activate that?

GR: I recalled, from an earlier,  which is related to emotion. When I have pain, I have a discharge of this neuron. When I see that you are in pain, I have the discharge of the same neurons. That's really, the most strong argument in favor of that you and me are the same, because at this point I feel that you a human being like me, you are not somebody else. Instead, the cognitive fact, it's very cold. I say: "Oh, my goodness, 20 people have died in Baghdad, pity" - and I don't care  anymore. Instead, if I see somebody which I like, for example, in pain, it's my pain. We became the same person, in a sense, it's a "we", not "me".

SS: That makes it more clear...

GR: That's I think...for people, the same is true for other actions I mentioned earlier about coffee drinking and so  - but about pain and disgust...we have nothing. We have very nice data on laughing, there's a center for laughing, and when you see somebody laughing, the neurons start immediately firing.

SS: Can we make an experiment... See, you don't laugh when I laugh?

GR: Well, I don't know what happens in my brain, and also your laughing was fake laughing, I think my brain recognizes what's not real laughing.

SS: I keep forgetting you're so smart.

GR: You know, we call it, "the politician smiling", the politician smiles, but only...

SS: A fake smile?

GR: ...with the mouth, but the eyes are still, they are not moving. Instead, with real smiling, you have these muscles contract.

SS: So, professor, you wanted to talk about sports, because there are a lot of parallels with the sports and studies showed that young soccer players increased their confidence in their play just by visualising their moves before they do it  - so is thinking is basically same thing as doing it?

GR: It's another mechanism. It's very close to mirror mechanism, which is called 'motor imagery'. So motor imagery is the capacity to think about yourself doing action -  but that's the same neurons which are involved in mirroring, they are involved when they think. So, in other words, if I observe you doing that or I think that I'm doing that - the same neurons fire. So, the trainer knows that, and they say "before play, rehearse inside your brain the action" - and that's very useful for trainers and for teams.

SS: If brain can affect they way you play and your performance - can observing someone lifting weights actually affect your physical shape?

GR: Yeah.

SS: Really?

GR: There is some data, it's not mine, I don’t know if it could be repeated, but if observe somebody lifting, after a while your muscles increase in strength. So, you can do everything... but you know, what is interesting in this field, is that now we are working - also with other group - on what's called "action observation therapy". If you have, for example, broken your legs, and then you have a cast - you walk in a strange way. When the cast is out, you still continue to walk in a strange way, you have to get  rehabilitation. If you watch a film and you see that you are walking in a correct way, the same mechanism which you had before is rehearsed and in one week, you are normal. So it's really, almost magic.

SS: Can you learn anything just by watching someone else do it or watching a film?

GR: Yes, but that's typically not the mirror mechanism, it's the visual learning. So there's also a visual system.

SS: I'm just trying to figure out how much this visual system and mirror neurons are related, that's why I'm asking.

GR: So if you see action, the mirror mechanism becomes active, if you see an object - no. If you show to me a painting of Rafaello, mirror neurons are not involved, because you see the color, the shape, the elegance of the dresses, but it's not... the mirror mechanism is related to motion, so it's transformation of some movement of somebody in my movement, your emotion - my emotion.

SS: Let me ask you a very tricky question, a very girly question, okay, can I ask you something?

GR: Okay.

SS: Are the mirror neurons responsible just for the parts of the body that you can enact, that change, while visualizing or mirroring? Or - I can watch someone lose weight...

GR: Lose weight?

SS: Yes, and would I lose weight too, when I see someone exercising like crazy, burning fat - would my fat burn as well?

GR: I have no idea!

SS: You should think about it.

GR: I will think about it. I'll suggest it for the next experiment.

SS: Just want to ask you a question as to a person who studies human brain - do brain types vary, like the brain of a genius, is it different in shape than brain of a normal person, for instance? Or a brain of a person who is very good at mathematics, is it different from a brain of a person who's good in music?

GR: No, it's not a macroscopic difference, the difference is in the connections. We know the brain of Einstein is not particularly different from the other, so it's the difference in the connections that you have rather than in the size of the brain. At the beginning of the last century, the people were measuring the brains. Then turned out some have big brain, Turgenev had a huge brain, but then also some stupid people also have a big brain. Turgenev had an enormous brain.

SS: I want to talk to you about a topic that's very important to me - how the mirror neurons actually possibly shed light on autism.

GR: Yeah. Some people over there interpreted mirror neurons as that broken mirror neurons mean autism, which is partially true. Autism is a genetically-determined disease, and there's a moment of your life, in which typically  you must have emotional sentimental input. For normal people, it’s enough what mother is doing normally.  For other people, that's not enough. You, somehow, you are a bit blind to that, so you must have much more stronger emotional input - otherwise the synapses which make a contact with your emotions center will not light up and you don't understand the action of others, and therefore you are unable to understand them.

SS: So, mirror neurons are partially explaining...

GR: Partially explaining.

SS: ...Autism. Can they possibly partially also help improve autists?

GR: Absolutely.

SS: How?

GR: By... as I said before - the only way we have now is through giving more stimuli which can increase your social capability. So, the people who work with these children have to spend a lot of time playing, trying to understand what she likes or what he likes. If you do it normally, after a while, you stop, and children remain autistic. But I must say another thing. When we speak about autism, we have to distinguish. There are autistic children who have normal intelligence, or even very high intelligence. There are autistic children who have a very low intelligence. So, the way to treat them is different. In one case you have just to allow them to socialize. In another case, you have to restore this capacity to interact with the other people in addition to socializing.

SS: But in general, can you by some exercises or some outside stimulus enhance mirror neurons or develop mirror neurons?

GR: The only way we know is doing some motor things - for example, there's a very nice  experiment made in Holland, with children. When a child is unable to walk because he's too slow - if you show other children walking, there's no activity in mirror neurons. As soon as they start walking, at this point, there's a strong activation. So when you learn a new motor ability, you understand much better the motor ability of others, so you increased a number of your mirror neurons. So, for motor action, it's very easy. For emotion - I don't know how to do it.

SS: Can you keep your brain healthy? I mean you’re someone who studies it, what do you do, what kind of exercises?

GR: Now it's clear that in order to keep your brain healthy, you have to do motor exercises, you have to have social relations, and you have to have intellectual interests. You have these three things - then you don't become old at 60, you become old at 90. You know, what’s very interesting about Alzheimer's, is that if you are people with low education and no interest, you become, very likely, Alzheimer patient when you are 60. If you have a culture, you don't get Alzheimer's when you get very old. That's… there’s also a good explanation. If you have many connections, so even if you lose part of them, you still are sufficient to interact with other people. If you are a poor man with the little culture - when you lose just a few connections, you become nothing.

SS: So, if I start playing chess and doing math and exercises...

GR: Yeah, very good.

SS: Something like that?

GR: Yeah, but also exercise. Physical exercise. It's very strange. Why physical exercises increases your mental capacity? But doing some exercises when you are old, it's good.

SS: But I have even noticed that when I run, because I run in the mornings, I think twice as fast.

GR: Really?

SS: Really.

GR: Well, one thing which I think... you know, when you play tennis, you feel very well, I play tennis, I feel very well, and why? Because we have substance we call "endorphins". When you do exercises, it's like a drug, and artificial drug, it's liberated in the brain and you feel very well - not because you did exercises, but you have this drug.

SS: Right now, with all this new technology, information is very reachable. You don't need to read books anymore, you don't need to go to lectures - tap Google and everything you want to know is there in a heartbeat. How does that affect your brain?

GR: There are two faces in this story. One face that's certain is that you can learn much faster - you go to your computer and you know everything about Turgenev, just by mentioning him. Before you had to go to library, to take some books... So from this point of view, it's very good. What is very bad is social thing - you often see two lovers which instead of speaking one to the other, everyone has their own telephone and they're talking with another person. Why then stay together? In this sense, the personal relations, they became very subtle and weak. So that's the danger of technology.

SS: So do you think just the personal relations, but then don't affect brains, because if you learn fast, you forget fast, no?

GR: Well, this I don't know, but certainly you have more information and you learn fast, but for social aspect it's dangerous. Because if you... I have grand children and they spend most of the time playing with the telephone. But they were playing, I don't know...

SS: Imagining, reading...

GR: Reading, yes. Now it's really terrible, when you somehow have arranged them together, they talk with you, but as soon as you finish it, they go there and have the telephone. Or they play on  the computer...

SS: So, in general, do our brains undergo evolution I mean, do they gain certain skills and lose others or no?

GR: Well, if you speak evolution in Darwinian terms - no, because we're fixed now. There's no condition to evolve our brain either way. But in cultural terms, of course, it has been big evolution in these 20 years, I think it’s extremely different - the life now with all these electronic devices.

SS: So what are the skills that we have lost, except for social interaction?

GR: None. Social interaction  we are losing, we are not losing other cognitive functions.

SS: Right, professor, thank you very much for this very interesting interview. Hope it wasn't too difficult for you to answer our question.

GR: Well it was rather difficult, your questions were rather difficult.

SS: Thank you so much and good luck with everything.