Your brain's capacity to empathise

Postdate: 07 December 2016

From the book The Empathic Brain by professor Christian Keysers, it appears that the success of relationships (in whatever context) is largely dependent on your ability to establish what the feelings and thoughts of the other person are. This is done with mirror neurons: brain cells that become active at the moment when you do or see something that someone else is doing.


In most cases, you can feel what another person's state of mind is. In clear situations of sadness, pain, emotion, or joy this happens more or less automatically. This can happen in other situations as well, but it often is a bit less obvious. This can be caused by your own sensitivity or the fact that the other person is hiding more. The question is how this works. For a long time, a lot of brain studies were done on the locations that were connected to language. The human capacity for empathy was considered to be less important, even though it is very important in our behaviour. Young children are already capable to understand other children intuitively. Even the most advanced mathematical computer models are unable to equal this. The brain seems to be capable to feel andpredict behaviour by using a combination of factors.


In the early 1990s, there was a breakthrough in the research that explained this phenomenon. A group of brain cells was discovered in the frontal lobe, which were called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons, as the name says, mirror the behaviour and emotions of the people around you. You will, to a greater or lesser degree, experience these emotions as if they were your own. This means that you can be strongly affected by the behaviour and emotions of others.


Self-control means that you can master your emotions and behaviour in certain situations. According to Alexander Soutschek (researcher at the University of Zürich), empathy is also linked to this. People who have poor self-control may be more egocentric, according to this research. This is because you are less inclined to share and rather to go for a quick need for satisfaction when the capacity for self-control is disturbed.

You need mirror neurons to understand the behaviour of others. They make you social and human: imagine a person who hits a hammer on his thumb, when this happens, you will probably pull a face of being hurt yourself and to grab your own thumb. Not many people think of something like this, even though it is extraordinarily complex. To change behaviour, it is important to enlarge someone's capacity to look at things from a different perspective.

‘We must understand before we judge’

behaviour     brain     emotions     empathy     mirror neurons    

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