The Discovery of Mirror Neurons – A Scientific Understanding of Empathy

Jeremy Rifkin author of The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness In a World In Crisis

“All humans are soft wired with mirror neurons.  So that if I’m observing you, your anger, your frustration, your sense of rejection, your joy, whatever it is, and I can feel what you’re doing, the same neurons will light up in me as if I’m having the experience myself… we’re soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we’re experiencing it our self.”   – Jeremy Rifkin

In the video below, senior lecturer on trends in science and technology, Jeremy Rifkin suggests that science shows that we’re actually soft-wired to be empathic. Something the yogis taught when they said we are all One, we are all connected.  Were the yogis referring to mirror neurons?

Rifkin explains these stages of development in children to help us understand empathy:

  • Empathic distress: when a baby in a nursery cries, all the other babies in the nursery cry, we don’t know why but it’s called empathic distress.
  • Mature Empathy: at 2 1/2 years of age, once a toddler can identify them self (like in the mirror) then they know that if they are observing someone else have a feeling, they know if they feel something they know they are feeling it because someone else has it.  They are two separate beings.
  • Self-hood goes together with empathic development: Around 8 years of age a child learns about birth and death.  They learn where they came from and that they have only one life and that life is limited and fragile.  This allows the child to experience another’s plight in the same way they experience their own life challenges. When we understand that we are all struggling to live, then we develop more empathy for other human beings.

Increase Self-hood, Increase Empathic Development

The way I understand what Mirror Neurons show us, we are born ready to empathize with others.  Through our culture, education, and upbringing we are conditioned otherwise.  Through our frailty and imperfection we actually become closer to each other, more connected, because of our soft wiring for empathy.

How Mirror Neuron soft-wiring can be used for Empathy and Kids Yoga

  • Teachers/Parents actually help kids develop empathy by admitting to mistakes and struggles.  It’s helpful to express frustration when there are behavior problems.  Tools like the Yoga Man vs. The Stressor coloring pages relay the stress we face and challenges we must overcome and help us connect with kids because of our built in ability to empathize,
  • Yoga poses that are difficult provide a group experience that help children relate to each other – in yoga this means it will build your class rapport when you introduce new challenges to overcome together,
  • Self awareness developed through yoga and meditation may also increase empathetic development – in kids yoga this means time for discussion, breath awareness, and meditation can also help kids develop empathy.

Can Empathy Help the Environment Too?

I highly recommend watching the video above.  Not only does Jeremy Rifkin propose that empathy could lead to a global human consciousness, he also suggests that empathy towards other species (animals) and the planet will lead to the solutions to our environmental issues.

For more information on Empathy and the Yamas and Niyamas you can also check out this guest post by Donna Freeman of Yoga in my School.

November’s Character Education theme is Empathy.  Did you know about Mirror Neurons?  How will understanding the science of mirror neurons help you with character development and teaching kids about empathy?

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  1. Thanks for dropping in Mary. It was very informative to me too. I just discovered Mirror Neurons when I wrote the blog post. And the scientist only discovered them in 1990. Now they are generally accepted in the medical world but the realm of emotions is better examined in yoga than in the doctors office.

  2. “Empathy is grounded in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life” – thank you for this very informative post!