“I Feel Your Pain” – The Neural Basis of Empathy

Last month, a terrible earthquake raised havoc in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. While the Haitians in Port-au-Prince are miles away from us, witnessing media images of their physical and emotional suffering moves us tremendously, and motivates many of us to respond to their distress with monetary and other donations. In a sense, this is an amazing human feat—that we are able to feel for other people’s far away tragedies. How is it that we are so moved? This is a question about human empathy, and it has boggled the minds of great thinkers for centuries. Indeed, German philosopher Rudolf Lotze coined the term empathy (einfuhlung) to literally mean “in” (em) and “feeling” (pathos), or “to feel into.”

Since Lotze’s time, empathy has become an area of contemporary psychological and neuroscientific research. In psychology, empathy refers to the ability to understand another person’s mental and emotional experience. While a great deal of psychology research created a conceptual understanding of empathy, it was in the early 1990s that researchers first gained insight into the biological mechanisms that may underpin empathy. Researchers at the University of Parma, Italy, discovered that when macaque monkeys observe another individual’s (monkey or human) actions, the neurons that normally fire when the monkey him/herself performs the same action also fires in response to watching another person. The finding of these neurons, known as ‘mirror neurons,’ suggests that these monkeys use the same neural mechanism to represent their own and others’ actions, creating a neurophysiological link between one’s own experience and that of another individual. Humans also seem to have mirror neurons in brain areas analogous to those observed in the macaques. Several studies confirm that when humans observe another person’s intentional action and/or emotional expressions, they activate brain areas that are also engaged when the person would perform the action or experience the emotion him/herself.

It is worth mentioning that the relative role of mirror neurons in human empathy is currently of heated debate among researchers in neuroscience and psychology. The mirror neuron theory suggests that because of the immediate overlap in neural activation in response to our own and other individual’s actions, we are able to imagine another individual’s subjective experience. Yet, much of the time we are either inaccurate about or apathetic towards another individual’s experience. Mirror neurons do not explain why humans empathize with others more or less easily, nor whether we are more or less accurate in imagining their internal mental experience.

Although there is much more to learn about how humans experience empathy, the discovery of mirror neurons are a major contribution to our understanding. For now, the next time you pass someone on the street and feel sad because they look sad, you may have a better understanding as to why this happens. As the old saying goes, “I feel your pain.”


Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27 (1), 169-192 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230

Rizzolatti, G. (1996). Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions Cognitive Brain Research, 3 (2), 131-141 DOI: 10.1016/0926-6410(95)00038-0

Decety, J., & Meyer, M. (2008). From emotion resonance to empathic understanding: A social developmental neuroscience account Development and Psychopathology, 20 (04) DOI: 10.1017/S0954579408000503

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  • Javaid Akhtar

    Its interesting that the level of empathy we have for each other seems might have a basis in our sensori-motor mirror neurons…i.e we have to see ( be within sensory reach) to feel anothers pain.
    That would be useful because we would’nt be able to compete if we empathised with the competition ( over the hill and out of sight….or mass Media air-brushed ).
    Maybe the action of group dance could synchronise a tribe to de-sychronise / & overcome the mirror neurons temporarily when we go spears in hand to kill fellow humans in another tribe.That synchronicity duality would be Media based today.
    We co-operate to compete.So somewhere along the line…our ability to empathise must be able to be suspended , so that we indeed to terrible things to fellow humans …as that is what we have tended to do ..throughout history.
    I think we have rituals/memes that do this .Dances..music…media ..dis-information…I believe we pro-actively need to suspend ‘ the humanity ‘ of the object of our terror..so that we can inflict productive amounts of terror upon another set of individuals .In essence ..a short cut around our mirror neurons.
    Its a horrible thing to say in words….but I’m struck by how we always have a need to de-humanise people first ..before we can efficiently co-operate so that evil things can be committed against them.

    Is mass Religion such a short-cut? ..and spirituality the opposite end of the empathy scale ( the side that tips towards more empathy and fewer short -cuts)

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  • Yes! I read about this in Daniel Goleman’s book “Social Intelligence,” where he says our brains are “wired to connect.” I agree with Javaid Akhtar that we must have some way of suspending this function, especially in the context of criminal activity like stealing and killing. Some people are also just born with less of a capacity for empathy than others. I also imagine that there are environmental factors that can suppress one’s empathy over time.

    Great post!

  • Mirror neurons… this do shed some light into the question of empathy. I wonder how criminals’ minds work. It could mean they produce less mirror neurons and therefore feel no empathy whatsoever for the crimes they have committed. Would it be nice to dissect a brain of a criminal and that of a normal person? Just a thought…

  • Do you know if anyone has done research on the following:
    – impact of social technologies on mirror neurons and empathy – in other words, do platforms like Facebook increase/decrease empathy for others?
    – If in fact, watching is the same as doing, what is the affect of media in general – broadcast media, films, television on mirror neurons and empathy?

  • Empathy neurons are hardware…..their suspension is software,.
    Most crimminals prefer not to be face to face with victims.Most executions take place with the executioner protecting his empathy neurons by blindfolding/hooding the victim , shooting in the back etc ..
    Crimminals who are made to empathise with the victim as part of the re-habiltation process have lower rates for re-offending.
    Nazis who had to shoot 100’s of innocents with guns fell sick quickly…so hence the ‘out-of-sight’ gas chambers.
    And the Media is just like religion….very adept at channelling our empathies.

  • April

    When we empathize, this simply shows that we are human and this sets us apart from animals.

  • Farouk

    no wonder confident and relaxed people make us feel relaxed and anxious people make us feel anxious

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  • MoiMoi

    the mirror neuron theory started during the late 90s….no further studies have been made since then.

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Meghan Meyer, PhD (c)

Meghan Meyer, PhD candidate, studies social cognitive neuroscience at University of California-Los Angeles. Prior to joining UCLA, she worked on behavioral and brain imaging studies in the Stanford University Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Lab and the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago, and completed her M.A. in cognitive science, with a specialty in cognitive neuroscience, from Ecole Normale Superieur, in Paris, France. When she is not in the lab designing studies and analyzing data, she enjoys writing about scientific findings and their broader impact for general audiences.

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