They are behind our ability to communicate effectively, bound with each other, or even enjoy a movie. Discovered a bit by accident, the mirror neurons are the brain cells that allow us to understand each other; they are the root of our empathy; they are what govern our interpersonal relationships.
Giacomo Rizzolatti was first exposed to this revolutionary discovery when he and his team of researchers were studying the functioning of the brain using monkeys as test subjects. The monkeys were asked to perform some tasks for which they were rewarded by a treat they loved: a peanut. All along, the rhesus monkeys’ brain activity was monitored using electrodes.
One day, a researcher of Rizzolati’s team ate some peanuts in front of his subjects. To his surprise, the reward center of the big apes lit up the same way as if they would have eaten the peanut themselves. In other words, by watching the man eat his peanut, the monkeys felt the exact same pleasure, the same emotion as if they had received their treat. Their brain mirrored the feeling of the peanut eater.
This was the first step to one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century in neurosciences: the existence of so-called mirror neurons.
Still relatively unknown, mirror neurons are a set of cells found in multiple areas of the brain. These cells light up both when we feel an emotion or carry out a task, as well as when we see another person doing the same thing.
In other words, these brain cells connect us in a degree never thought possible before by automatically imitating the activity of the mirror neuron in the person we are looking at.
It is currently thought that mirror neurons could be partly responsible for explaining how humans and monkeys can imitate behavior and learn from doing so. And, last but not least, they are also intimately involved in our understanding of others and their intentions, as well as how we perceive the world.
How funny is this that these neurons discovered thanks to a handful of peanuts might be one of the main architects of our world? Indeed, mirror neurons are likely to have shaped the foundation of civilization itself and to have a profound impact on the way we interact with one another. Well worth a few peanuts, hey?
Please excuse typos, repeats, or any non-sense. My riffs are unedited outpouring of words written in one sitting to explore thoughts that were volunteering to be developed.