Tag Archives: mirror neurons

Synesthesia: Can You Hear Colors?

What is it like to hear colors and see sounds – people who have synesthesia might be able to give a little insight into that. Imagine the world full of new possibilities, sounds, images, and tastes. The way you are able to perceive and sense nature is so different from everybody else. You can say that the sky tastes like plums. When you hear Vivaldi’s four seasons on the piano, vibrant colors appear from every possible direction, representing spring, summer, fall, and winter. You are able to differentiate months of the year by colors and different smells by taste. Some of these are just examples. If you are able to relate to any of them, you might have synesthesia.

What is synesthesia?


Scientists consider synesthesia to be a neurological and perceptual condition. It comes from Greek words that represent ‘togetherness and sensation’.  It is quite extraordinary and brings a whole different understanding to what surrounds us. In fact, people who have synesthesia most often than not, embrace it. They do not want to ‘cure’ the condition, per say. To them, the world is full of tastes and colors and sounds, depending on their particular type of synesthesia, of course. That’s how they’ve always experienced the world. They understand that Monday to have a green color, but Saturday more of a purple one and it makes sense to them.

Imagine looking at the sun each and every day and seeing that it’s yellow and one day wakes up and realize it’s a bland gray. That’s what it would be like for a synesthetic to lose their sense and understanding of the world. They would not only be very confused for a long period of time. No, despite that, they’d probably also feel sadness and grief for the loss of all of the beautiful imagery, sounds smell and touch that they will never experience again.

It’s quite difficult to understand synesthesia without experiencing it. A sky that tastes like blueberries or colors appearing when you hear music? That sounds crazy to anybody who has not experienced it themselves. Synesthesia, however, is not limited to just these people though. A lot of researchers looked into synesthetic occurrences in the regular population. These studies found that many are actually able to experience synesthesia. Sometimes they don’t even realize they are doing it.

Perhaps, in order to understand it better, you should experience a little touch of what synesthesia can be. This is what scientists call the McGurk effect

The McGurk effect

For a very long time, researchers understood speech as an auditory perception only. Now know the McGurk effect where there is an interplay between auditory and visual stimuli in the perception of speech. It is somewhat an illusion. Scientists, Harry McGurk and John Macdonald coined the effect in their 1976 study. It seems to be that when speech is paired with visual stimuli, a very extraordinary multi-sensory illusion happens.

They achieved this surprising effect by making a recording of a person voicing a consonant. After that they put the recording with a face, however, that face was expressing a different consonant. When the voice recording was heard by itself, the participants recognized it for what it was. However, when McGurk and Macdonald paired the voice recording along with a face expressing an incongruent sound – the participants heard a different sound. That sound ended up being the combination of the voice recording and the visual face articulation. The McGurk effect shows an absolutely astounding example of multisensory integration and how both, visual and auditory information can integrate and result in a unified experience.

If you can imagine, a lot of researchers found the illusion quite interesting and attempted to replicate it with different populations and conditions. What they found was quite astounding. Summerfield & McGrath found in their 1984 study that the effect happens with the use of vowels and not just consonants. The McGurk effect is present in pre linguistic infants according to the 1997 study by Rosenblum, Schmuckler & Johnson. Astonishingly enough, the effect even worked across a variety of languages which Massaro, Cohen, Gesi and Heredia showed in their 1992 study.

Synesthesia and the McGurk effect

It seems that even people who do not have the condition fall for the McGurk effect. The effect is very strong. Even when you know what to expect from it, you still cannot change it. When you think about it, it makes sense. The world we live in is full of senses and a variety of experiences. We do not just perceive sound by itself, or cannot look at something in a complete silence. There is always an ongoing integration of senses that happens all around us. It is no wonder that sometimes in our lives we are able to experience a synesthetic episode.

Types of Synesthesia

Synesthesia can appear in a variety of forms and types. In fact, researchers have been able to find over seventy types of synesthesia. We characterize the different varieties by what type of sensation they are able to cause and where that sensation came from. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • Number-Form Synesthesia: those who have this type of synesthesia are able to perceive numbers as mental maps. That means that these people will put the numbers in certain positions in space that will form a mental map. Whenever a person thinks of a number, a mental map will appear in their mind. Francis Galton introduced this type in his ‘The visions of sane persons’ work.
  • Lexical-Gustatory Synesthesia: people with this type will experience different tastes that correspond to specific words or phonemes. Badminton could taste like mashed potatoes but suitcase will taste like a chocolate cake. Quite a fun type, this one!
  • Grapheme Synesthesia: this one emerges with perceiving numbers and letters as different colors. This is one of the most common types of synesthesia. Interestingly enough, different people experience different colors in association with numbers and letters. Some commonalities occur. Letter ‘A’ often appears red for some reason.
  • Personification: A variety of ordered sequences will show up as different personalities. For example, Friday can be a happy go-lucky girl who enjoys dancing while Monday is an angry and bitter old man. Do you see any connection with real life?
  • Chromesthesia: people perceive sounds as a variety of colors. There is a variety of different experiences within this type with some people only perceiving colors during spoken speech and others seeing them during musical pieces. This type is quite common among musicians.
  • Misophonia: this one is not a particularly nice type of synesthesia. People who have this type experience very negative emotions when it comes to sounds. Examples of experienced emotions can be anger, disgust, sadness etc. Fortunately, this is one of the rarer types and it happens due to a disturbance between the limbic system and the auditory cortex.
  • Mirror-touch-pain Synesthesia: these people will experience a sensation of touch when they see somebody else being touched. The pain type can experience pain in a similar way when they see somebody else in pain. Researchers have linked this particular type of synesthesia with mirror neurons and regions responsible for empathy in the brain.

There are many other types of synesthesia. If you think you might be experiencing synesthesia but did not find your specific type above, you can type in your symptoms into google search, and sure enough, there will be somebody else with similar symptoms.

Synesthesia: Diagnostic Criteria


Up to this date, there is no clear cut method for diagnosing synesthesia. Certain criteria exist that specialists adopt in order to help with the diagnosis. Keep in mind, however, that some of the leading scientists and researchers do not follow these criteria. Despite that, it gives at least a little bit of guidance in diagnosing synesthesia.


  • Projection: people will see the sensations outside of their body (hearing sounds outside during a musical piece)
  • Memory: associations that the synesthetic has will stick with him and will often overpower new associations that he or she might experience in the course of a lifetime.
  • Involuntary: sensations happen without the control of these people
  • Emotion: sensations can be perceived either positively or negatively.
  • Duration: the perceptions have to be stable and unchangeable.

Synesthesia and the Brain


The original cause for synesthesia is still unknown. Due to such a variation in types of synesthesia, it is quite difficult to generalize brain studies to all of the different types. The brain uses different parts of the brain for the processing of different senses, therefore, with such a large variety of synesthesia types, an involvement of different brain parts happens. Researchers have to study each type separately and see whether there are some similarities between them. Some studies reported the activity in the superior posterior parietal cortex in relation with the grapheme-color synesthesia. Both visual cortex and the auditory cortex are activated during the McGurk effect because we are both listening and seeing at the same time.

The consensus among scientists is that depending on the type of synesthesia, the brain regions responsible for that sense will activate. What we speculate is that the uniqueness of synesthesia comes from a different way of network connections within the brain. Baron-Cohen and colleagues mention the excessive quantity of neuronal connections in the brain of synesthetics. According to him, during normal perceptual experiences, we have different brain areas for different senses and a different perception. The connection between those areas is present but is restricted. However, when you have synesthesia, your brain develops more connections between different neurons. This makes the restrictions between the areas to disappear and leads to synesthesia.

Peter Grossenbacher, on the other hand, says that the feedback communications are not subdued in a way that it happens in normal perception. The information that is processed from areas responsible for high-level of processing is not able to come back to each signified area. Instead of different senses going back to areas responsible for single senses, they mix together, allowing synesthesia.

Ramachandran and Hubbard support the increase in neural connection theory, but they also add that it happens due to the fact that the pruning between different sensory modalities is decreased.

Pruning is the removal process of the synaptic connections and more neurons in order to enhance the work of already existing neural transmissions.

Synesthesia and Genetics

Some studies have found a genetic link with the development of synesthesia. Asher and colleagues claim there is a link between auditory-visual synesthesia and certain chromosomes. Due to previous research suggesting a familial trend and a genetic factor helping in the development of synesthesia, they decided to look at 43 different families who had it. They found four different types of loci that could cause the variation in brain development in the brain of those who have the condition. What is interesting is that one of the genes that they identified, might be important for pruning.

Thomsen and colleagues focused on different genetic components. This leads to a variety of scientists to believe that synesthesia occurs due to a combination of a variety of genes.

Famous people throughout history with Synesthesia

Synesthesia is more common than some people believe. In fact, a variety of famous people are believed to have had this condition.

  • Vincent Van Gogh: chromesthesia
  • Lorde: music –> color
  • Vladimir Nabokov: grapheme -> color
  • Pharrell Williams: chromesthesia
  • Stevie Wonder: chromesthesia
  • Billy Joel: chromesthesia, grapheme-> color
  • Duke Ellington: chromesthesia


As mentioned before, diagnosis synesthesia is quite difficult so knowing its prevalence can bring some challenges as well. Before people used to think that the condition is quite rare, however, nowadays we know that it is a lot more common. Simner and colleagues in their 2006 study investigated the overall population. They found that around 1% of the population have the grapheme-color type. Around 5% have some sort of type of synesthesia. Due to the difficulty of diagnosis, this could be a very low account of the overall numbers, however.

Synesthesia is very common and a lot of people might have it. Family members, friends, co-workers, and classmates. Even you might have some sort of type of synesthesia and not know about it!

Neuroimaging: What is it and how can it map the brain?

One of the ways psychology has progressed came from the use of various neuroimaging methods. In terms of experimental psychology history, neuroimaging started with the cognitive revolution. Many scientists realized that understanding the brain plays an enormous role in the external behavior.  Scientists also use neuroimaging methods and technique prevention, diagnosis and treatment for different neurological diseases.

Today we still do not have a clear cut picture of the whole brain in itself. Not every network has been mapped, but we have moved forward a substantial amount. The development of non-invasive and invasive neuroimaging methods and their use for research and medical purposes was a definite breakthrough.


Neuroimaging-What can we map?

When one thinks about the brain and the nervous system, one can think of many things to map. Of course, we have the brain itself, its parts and the functions of the anatomical functions. We have neuroimaging techniques who deal exactly with that. Despite the anatomy, however, there are many neuroimaging methods that try to look at things on a more microscopic level.

We have methods that can view the cortical areas of the brain. Other techniques look at cortical columns and different layers. We have methods that can record a single cell by itself. Going even further, we can look at the soma of the neuron, the dendrite and, separately the axons. We can even look at the synaptic connections between the two neurons.

Neuroimaging- Method Classification

Neuroimaging methods also do not just encompass the spatial resolution. We try to look into proteins, organelles, bacteria, mammalian cells, the brain of various species and, finally, human brains. Many neuroimaging methods also differ by the temporal resolution. They differ by how quickly they are able to detect an event that happens in the brain. These neuroimaging methods differ by milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours and days. They also differ by the spatial resolution. Some methods can show anatomical structures well, while others cannot. Apart from that, the variety of the neuroimaging methods differs by how non-invasive and invasive they are.

If one can imagine, scientists use a lot more non-invasive neuroimaging methods in research. Not many regular participants agree to something that can potentially alter their brain functions. Medical practitioners are a lot more likely to use invasive neuroimaging methods in an attempt to treat certain diseases. Various patients with neurological diseases benefit on a daily basis from the invasive neurological methods. In some cases, the patients themselves are able to control the stimulating method.

Electrophysiological techniques

For many years now we know that neurons are able to generate electric potentials. We also know that the synaptic activity of the nervous matter is similar to a battery. It acts as an electric generator.

If we recall the first class in physiology we took, we can roughly remember the structure of the neuron. Words like the cell body or the soma, dendrites and an axon come to mind. Dendrites seem to be able to receive electrical signals. Axon sends electrical signals to the dendrite of the next neuron. The cell body combines the signals from the previous neurons. Then it sends another signal along the axon for the next neuron.

Within the neurons themselves, we are able to distinguish two different types of electrical activity.

1-Action potentials

The action potential is a very common concept that many students learn in their first class on the nervous system. The entire process happens for about 1 ms and culminates with the release of neurotransmitters in the end of the axons.

  • The stimulus from a previous neuron activates the voltage gates on sodium channels which will cause the influx of positively charged sodium to the cell.
  • This depolarizes the membrane. Sometimes the depolarization of the membrane is able to reach the threshold.
  • If that happens, a series of events happen in order to send the signal along the axon to the next neuron. This is what we call an action potential.
  • The potassium channels are still closed and since we have an influx of sodium, the membrane becomes more positive on the inside then it does on the outside.
  • After that, the channels for sodium close and, therefore, the influx of sodium stops as well.
  • That’s when the potassium channels stay open and the potassium comes out of the cell and makes the inside of the cell negative one more time. This repolarization of the neuron can lead to the overall voltage to be below the original resting potential
  • This happens due to the fact that the potassium channels stay open a little longer. This ends in hyperpolarization. During this period a new action potential cannot happen and this is what we call a refractory period of the neuron.
    • Scientists cannot record action potentials via surface electrodes. As of today, we are not able to record potentials from a single neuron. What we can record is the second type of electrical activity. We can, however, use intracranial electroencephalography (EEG) to measure them which happens to be an invasive technique.

2- Post-synaptic potentials

They last for hundreds of milliseconds and it is the addition of the potential from various neurons that happen at the same time. We are able to record the potentials together. Researchers can easily record these potentials from surface electrodes. Electroencephalography (EEG) can measure these types of potentials.

So, in the end, we are able to distinguish two principal types of neuroimaging methods that measure the electrical activity of the neuron.

Two principal types of electrophysiological techniques

  • Single-cell recordings
    • These recordings are able to measure a number of different action potentials every second. The electrodes will be place inside a single cell or nearby a neuron which makes the technique invasive.
    • This technique can be useful for researchers who want to understand how single cells work.
    • Due to the fact that this technique allows measuring single neurons, we are able to see how specific these cells are.
    • A paper published saying that single neurons were firing to Jennifer’s Aniston’s face and nobody else’s. This level of object recognition falls under very high-level vision neurons and the paper gained a lot of attention due to such a strange working of a single neuron. (1)
  • Event-related potentials (ERP)
    • These recordings get the summation of different electrical potentials for a variety of neurons (millions of them). This technique places electrodes on the skull, therefore, they are surface electrodes.

Electroencephalography & Event-Related Potentials (ERP)

Since we now know that the brain produces electrical potentials, we are able to measure them. Electroencephalography helps us do that. Scientists can place various electrodes on the surface of the scalp and then measure the bio-electrical activity that the brain produces. Event-related potentials (ERP) are the potentials from various neurons that happen as a result of different stimuli given by the scientist to the participant. Stimuli and the tasks that the researchers assign can range from motor, to sensory and cognitive.

So the scientists are able to measure where and when the neurons will spike as a result of a certain assigned stimuli. Researchers have been able to find various ERP components or similarly distributed neurons that fire at the same time. They found various ERP components related to language, visual attention, auditory components (famous concepts like the mismatch negativity) and many others.

Other neuroimaging methods

Magnetoencephalography (MEG)

Neuroimaging methods don’t just stop at measuring the electrical activity of the neurons. Another famous brain imaging technique is MEG – it records magnetic fields. Electrical currents that already occur in the brain generate magnetic fields. MEG is able to directly measure the brain function which is a huge advantage when comparing it with other techniques. Apart from that, it has very high temporal resolution and high spatial resolution which is one of the rarest things when it comes to brain research. Usually, neuroimaging methods are either higher in spatial resolution or in temporal resolution, not both.

MEG is non-invasive. Scientists are able to use it with other neuroimaging methods at the same time – like EEG. One big disadvantage of MEG comes from the fact that in order to get the magnetic fields, a special room that gets rid of other types of magnetic interference needs to be built. Due to this, the machine is quite costly, but one of the best methods for measuring brain activity as of today.

Other famous types of brain imaging do not measure direct brain activity, however, they have quite good spatial resolution and are often used for clinical and diagnostic purposes.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

This technique gives an image of brain activity, however, in order to produce that image radioactive material needs to be either inhaled or injected by the participant. The image will then be produced due to this radioactive material going to the areas of the brain that are active.

Computed Tomography Scan (CT Scan)

This technique is able to produce brain images as well. It is able to show the anatomy of the brain, however, not the functions themselves which are a serious drawback especially if we consider the fact that X-ray lights need to go through the head to produce the image.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI – Neuroimaging

One of the most common techniques nowadays. It gives an image of anatomical structures in the brain. It is non-invasive, but the patient must remain still in the MRI chamber which could prove to be quite painful for those suffering from claustrophobia. Apart from that, any type of metallic devices cannot be put in the chamber so many patients and subjects are not able to get a scan.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)

An upgrade from the MRI – this technique detects the blood-oxygen-level dependent contrast imaging (BOLD) levels in the brain which are the changes in the blood flow and it not only gives the anatomical structures but the functions as well. Various colors will change depending on which part of the brain is active. The big drawback with this technique is the fact that it does not directly measure brain activity, but BOLD signal so we cannot for sure say that the activity that we find via fMRI studies is fully accurate and is produced by neurons.

Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI)

A technique based on MRI and it measures the way the water can travel through the white matter in the brain. It can show the activity as the colored area on the image. It’s very good in detecting concussions so can be used in clinical applications which is a huge advantage. Again, it does not measure direct brain activity which is a huge disadvantage and sometimes it also distorts the images. DTI has a quite low spatial resolution.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

The electric field that TMS is able to generate is able to interfere with the action potentials that are happening in the brain. It’s a highly invasive technique and is able to be used in research applications for the workings of many diseases and pathologies. What we do know is that repetitive TMS is able to produce seizures so, obviously, it has some sort of side effects and needs to be used with caution.

Neuroimaging- New Developments in Neuroscience

New neuroimaging methods and brain imaging techniques are being developed nowadays and, perhaps, soon enough we will be able to not only map the entire anatomical structures of the brain but functions as well. As of right now, these are the majority of the neuroimaging methods that are used in cognitive neuroscience. Maybe, in a few years, we will be able to develop a low-cost neuroimaging technique that has both high spatial and temporal resolution and is non-invasive to the participants!


Quiroga RQ, Reddy L, Kreiman G, Koch C, Fried I. Invariant visual representation by single neurons in the human brain. Nature [Internet]. 2005;435(7045):1102–7. Available from: http://www.nature.com.zorac.aub.aau.dk/nature/journal/v435/n7045/abs/nature03687.html%5Cnhttp://www.nature.com.zorac.aub.aau.dk/nature/journal/v435/n7045/pdf/nature03687.pdf

Mirror neurons: The most powerful learning tool

Mirror neurons. Imitation has always been a powerful learning tool. The human brain is enabled with different mechanisms that allow us to imitate actions. Babies are capable of reproducing facial expressions, and as adults, we imitate basic behavior. Laughter can be spread, we can cry while watching a sad movie… It seems like we have the capacity to feel what others feel, empathize with them and understand their feelings. What happens in the brain for this to happen? The answer is mirror neurons. In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about mirror neurons. What are they? How do they intervene in education and empathy? Why is emotion contagious? 

What are Mirror Neurons? Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

What are Mirror Neurons?

In humans and primate species there are neurons called Mirror Neurons. These brain cells activate when we see someone doing something. For example, when a chimpanzee sees its mother opening a nut with a rock and then tries to imitate her with another nut. Mirror neurons are related with empathic, social and imitations behavior. They are a fundamental tool for learning.

“We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.”- G.Rizzolatti.

In the 90’s a group of neuroscientists, directed by Giacomo Rizzolatti from the University of Parma (Italy), discovered something surprising. A hundred group of neurons in the brain in primates were activated not only when the monkey was doing something but also when the monkey saw another one doing that same action.

Mirror neurons can be defined as a group of neurons that activate when we perform an action or when we see an action being performed. 

Mirror neurons are essential for imitation which is key in the learning process. From birth these group of neurons are active and it allows us to learn to eat, dress, speak… Mirror neurons are also important in planning our actions as well as understanding intentions behind actions.

In the next video, Ramachandran a neuroscientist, explains what are mirror neurons and why they are important.

Mirror Neurons and Education

Mirror neurons allow us to learn through imitation. They enable us to reflect body language, facial expressions, and emotions. Mirror neurons play an essential part in our social life. They are key for the child development, as well as relationships and education.

Humans are social beings programmed to learn from others. We all reach our goals working as a group than individually. Seeing a parent, professor or student show a cognitive skill or any other skill, gives us a tangible experience rather than learning from explanation.

How do mirror neurons intervene in our daily lives?

  • Mirror neurons are responsible for yawning when we see someone else yawn.
  • These neurons also act when we see someone sad or crying and in turn feel sad.
  • The same thing happens with smiling or laughing. The way laughter can be contagious.
  • Studies suggest that there is an activation of the anterior insula when we see someone expressing disgust.
  • Another study shows that the somatosensory cortex is activated when we see someone touching another person the same way it activates when we are the ones being touched.

8 tips: How do mirror neurons influence education?

Thanks to mirror neurons the emotions we portray have a direct influence on others. This is why teachers have to make the effort to control their emotions, avoid teacher burnout, in order to use mirror neurons as an asset.

  1. Show happiness and optimism and that way you will transmit that to your students and children.
  2. Control and avoid negative emotions. We all have bad days but teachers have to be sure this doesn’t reflect on the children. However, the tricky part is that this doesn’t mean children should repress these emotions. As a teacher be sure to detect what emotion the child is feeling and help them learn to identify and manage them accordingly.
  3. Use visual signs and imitation any chance you get. Make examples practical with physical demonstrations so that children can imitate you.
  4. Encourage group interactions. This will maximize the use of mirror neurons and therefore the child’s social relationships and empathy.
  5. Use imitation in any activity that you want the children to learn (washing teeth, cleaning up after themselves…)
  6. Run from violence. Children learn what they see. If a child is educated in a hostile environment, his mirror neurons will activate and he might repeat these violent behaviors.
  7. Teach children the importance of how we listen, particularly body language. That way when someone has to share something or needs help the mirror neurons will activate and empathy will be reinforced.
  8. Teach children about emotional intelligence so that they can be able to identify their own and other people’s emotions.

Mirror Neurons and Emotional Contagion

Do you feel happy when people around you are happy? Do you get sad or depressed around negative and pessimistic people? This is due to the emotional contagion produced by the mirror neurons.

Emotional Contagion is a process through which a person or group influence the emotions and emotional behavior of another person or group. This can be done through emotional induction conscious or unconscious.

When people communicate they have the tendency to imitate gestures and facial expressions and in many cases feel what others are feeling. It has been proven the high impact emotional contagion has in our personal and work relationships. We are still not conscious of the influential ability we have in other people’s emotional state and in turn other people on our own emotional state.

Mirror neurons allow us to literally feel what others are feeling and “live” their emotions. Mirror neurons are based on empathy.

Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

This is proof that we are social beings. Empathy has been essential to our species survival and shows how without attachments and protection we wouldn’t have survived.

How can we take advantage of emotional contagion?

The fact that we can interconnect to each other and understand each other’s feelings can work to our advantage.

  • Happiness is more contagious than sadness, so try to surround yourself with happy people. However, don’t avoid people who are sad, we all need support sometimes and giving them love might help them recover faster.
  • Imitate happy and positive people, do what they do. Practice sports and smile more (even if you don’t feel like it, you will later feel better). Keep a healthy self-esteem and stop thinking negatively.
  • Think before acting or saying anything, especially if its negative. Try to say it politely, educated and as calmly as possible since your emotional state can be contagious.

Check out how laughter can be contagious with this video.


Mirror Neurons and Culture

Does culture influence our brain? The answer seems to be yes. According to an investigation from the University of California, mirror neurons respond differently if the person in front of us shares our same culture or not.

Researchers used two actors, one American and another Nicaraguan to show a group of American participants a series of gestures (some American, others Nicaraguan and others without cultural meaning).

With Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) they investigated mirror neuron activities. They found that participants showed more activity when they saw the American do the gestures in comparison to the Nicaraguan. When the Nicaraguan showed American gestures to the group, the mirror neurons decreased their activity drastically.

It’s possible to conclude that mirror neurons are influenced by culture and in turn have an influence on our behavior. The results from this study show us that we are more prepared to understand and empathize with members of our own culture and ethnicity than those who are not. This also explains why we connect faster and easier with members of our own culture.

Mirror Neurons, empathy, and psychopathy

Psychopathy is a personality disorder distinguished by a superficial charm, pathological lies, and low empathy.

It’s common for psychopaths to lead a criminal life, however, not all become, serial killers or murderers. Some can actually lead a normal life.

If these psychopaths are not capable of empathizing, does that mean their mirror neurons are not working? A recent study answered this question.

Researchers observed the brain activity of two groups (18 psychopaths and 26 healthy people) while they watched short videos. The videos showed images of hands touching, gently, painfully, socially, rejecting each other and neutrally. They were instructed to watch the video and then to try to feel what the people were feeling. The next part of the study the participants were hit with a ruler to register their pain area in the brain.

Scientists found that only when psychopaths were asked to feel something did they actually feel something, mirror neurons even activated the same way as in the other group. However, when no instruction was given, the psychopath’s group showed less activation of the mirror neurons and pain receptors of the brain.

It’s not that psychopaths don’t have empathy, it’s that it’s a switch that can be activated and deactivated, and by default, it is always deactivated.

Mirror Neurons and Autism

Symptoms of autism include a delay in language and strained emotional recognition. They are not capable of perceiving different emotions, including their own.

Scientists, therefore, studied the mirror neurons in people with autism to check if they were “broken”. They found that the system has a developmental delay, where the activity is slower, weaker and less activated than in others. Nonetheless, the activity increases with age and by age 30 it becomes normal and then unusually elevated.

Other studies have discovered that not all people with autism have a delay in these neurons. They can be activated normally by familiar faces.

Hope you found this article interesting. Please leave a comment below!


Molnar-Szakacs, I., Wu, A. D., Robles, F. J., & Iacoboni, M. (2007). Do you see what I mean? Corticospinal excitability during observation of culture-specific gestures. PLoS One, 2(7), e626.

Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., den Boer, J. A., Bartels, A. A., & Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 136(8), 2550-2562.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.