Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Empathy

Published by timdean on

The evolution of empathy, and the altruism and cooperation it encourages, is a bit of a curly problem. It’s well known that groups that employ a particular minimal threshold level of altruism can potentially outcompete groups that are less cooperative. The problem is, beneath this threshold level, it’s difficult to see how empathy and altruism can gain a foothold without being drowned out by self-interest.

This is a problem that even Darwin acknowledged, and there have since been proposed a number of possible solutions, including kin selection and reciprocity. Here’s one of my own – although it’s more than likely it’s been proposed before, but I haven’t stumbled across any explicit references to it to date:

Mirror neurons and social learning.

Yeah, mirror neurons – they’re well known for their involvement in empathy, and could well be one of the physiological adaptations that underpins empathy and altruism. So, what if there was a way that mirror neurons could have evolved such that they performed their empathy-inducing function, but the selection pressures that produced them weren’t themselves prone to the threshold problem with empathy and altruism mentioned above?

Maybe there’s  way. Because mirror neurons are also instrumental in social learning, particularly through imitation, and social learning is arguably one of the pivotal features in our cognitive explosion that has occurred over the past several million years. Social learning enabled the horizontal transmission of adaptive information and skills, allowing far more flexible and plastic behaviour in response to a complex and changing environment, and doing so far quicker than old fashioned genetic change from one generation to the next, driven by mutation and selection.

Cultural evolution is a force multiplier. Behavioural traits can emerge quickly, change, bounce back, and be transmitted to others and spread quickly, and each individual doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel. And mirror neurons play a central role in the whole process.

So, maybe the selection pressure driving the evolution of mirror neurons was based on social learning, and the useful ability to automatically imitate the actions of others, including their minor gestures and facial expressions. Add to this a burgeoning theory of mind, and the ability to intuit intentional states in others – which may have been driven by the selective demands of an increasingly complex social environment – and mirror neurons could easily have started mirroring emotional states along with physical gestures.

And bam: empathy.

It might have only been a small nudge in the direction of empathy, and perhaps highly restricted in terms of its strength, or which other individuals triggered it, but it might have just reached that threshold level to allow altruism to increase and the new selective pressure of promoting cooperation take over in driving empathy to even higher levels.

I’m sure there are reams of details to be filled in, and there may be many alternate and superior explanations for the beginnings of empathy and altruism, but I suspect that mirror neurons and imitative learning could be a piece in the empathy puzzle.


dimitri seneca snowden · 11th January 2012 at 11:24 pm

very clever post! i like the analogy of mirror neurons. i believe that all levels of human consciousness have to be balanced. where ever there is a in there is an out or opposite rather.

mamafog · 12th January 2012 at 1:40 am

I’ve read that sensory/motor connections are what create these mirror neurons. Which sort of explains where were they for the first 3 years of my autistic daughter’s life.

It just seems to me that if there really are mirror neurons in the brain, that there should be an obvious roadmap to help these neurons develop in people with autism and other disabilities.

I could explain my daughter’s developing imitation and joint attention skills as a result of the sensory/motor connections “made” during her therapies. But I wonder about the kids who made more or less progress than her with the same “input” (therapy).

I also wonder what you think about the arguments against mirror neurons. I would sure like to understand this better. 



Tim Dean · 12th January 2012 at 8:57 am

Those are interesting posts from Talking Brains, although I’m more sympathetic with the second post. If what they’re saying about mirror neurons not being key to action understanding but action selection is correct, then it doesn’t affect what I’ve written in my post.

As for mirror neurons and autism, I’m no expert in this area, but my understanding is the connection is still poorly understood. There are theories about mirror neuron dysfunction or absence, theory of mind deficiencies or emotional or cognitive variations, such as in Baren-Cohen’s work. How it all fits together in autism is still a mystery, at least as far as I’m aware.

As for development of mirror neurons, it might be that their developmental path is determined wholly or in part by genetics. If that’s the case, then there might be limited things we can do to promote their development externally.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that mirror neurons don’t necessarily have to have a single function. They might be neurons involved in other processes or networks that have a propensity to trigger sympathetic patterns when observing some behaviour. We’ll only know when far more work has been done on isolating them and identifying their function.

All that said, I’m a philosopher, not a neuroscientist. I take empirical theories from the scientists and speculate as to how they’re connected, what their implications are and how to understand previously mysterious phenomena through the lens of new scientific understanding. So I tend to digest and synthesis scientific results rather than get involved in the scientific debates themselves – something I can’t contribute much to from the armchair.

Mark Sloan · 12th January 2012 at 9:01 am

Tim, I am not familiar with the threshold problem of evolving altruistic behaviors. Perhaps it depends on what we mean by altruism? (Acting at a cost to yourself in order to benefit others without considering possible future net benefits for yourself?) The threshold problem does not appear to occur, so far as I know, for altruistic cooperation (as just defined) among other animals, insects, or in simple computer program agents used in evolutionary morality studies.

Otherwise, this alternate path for evolving mirror neurons and the human emotional experience of empathy sounds very sensible to me.

But when one animal behaves in ways that appear to be showing empathy to another, such as a dog appearing to try to comfort its owner who is in distress, what ought we call that? I don’t think mirror neurons have yet been detected in dogs.

edwinrutsch · 12th January 2012 at 11:14 am

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

I posted a link to your article in our
Empathy and Compassion Magazine
The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

Tim Dean · 12th January 2012 at 1:02 pm

Mark, the problem is an evolutionary conundrum, and it does indeed depend on the way altruism is defined. In this context altruism is engaging in behaviour that is costly to one’s own fitness in order to lend a fitness benefit to another. In evolutionary terms, it was a problem to explain how this kind of behaviour could evolve, assuming that organisms that don’t preference their own fitness are likely not to pass as many genes on to subsequent generations as organisms that do favour their own fitness. Thus genes encouraging altruism would diminish over time in the population.

It’s also one reason why group selection has been strongly criticised over the years, because the internal dynamics of self-interest are often stronger than the forces that encourage group-interest at the expense of self-interest.

The threshold problem also occurs anywhere where similar conditions are met, including situations where altruism isn’t about fitness but about the satisfaction of desires: if there’s greater benefit from satisfying my desires than by preferencing others’ desires, then a group of self-interested individuals would never behave altruistically.

Another way of looking at is is how do two individuals move from the Nash Equilibrium of mutual defection in the Prisoner’s Dilemma to the Pareto Optimal level of mutual cooperation.

Of course, we now know of many solutions to this problem, and mirror neurons may be just one.

And edwinrutsch – thanks for posting those links. Sounds like an interesting resource. I do believe that empathy and compassion are important elements of morality and moral behaviour, and encouraging them is a valuable endeavour. That said, I do tend to believe empathy and compassion alone can only go so far, and there will inevitably be lapses. As such, we still need systems of moral norms that can guide behaviour to prevent or mitigate failures of empathy and compassion. I might write more on this topic some time soon.

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