EMPATHY allows us to feel emotions of others, to identify and understand their feelings and motives and see things from their perspective. How we generate empathy remains a subject of intense debate in cognitive science.
Some scientists now believe they may have finally discovered its root. We're all essentially mind readers, they say. The idea has been slow to gain acceptance, but evidence is mounting.
In 1996, three neuroscientists were probing brain of a macaque monkey when they stumbled across a curious cluster of cells in premotor cortex, an area of brain responsible for planning movements.
The cells fired not only when monkey performed an action, but also when it saw same action performed by someone else. The cells responded same way whether it reached out to grasp a peanut, or merely watched as another monkey or a human did.
Appropriately, scientists named them "mirror neurons".
Later experiments confirmed existence of mirror neurons in humans and revealed another surprise. In addition to mirroring actions, cells reflected sensations and emotions.
"Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person's mental shoes," says Marco lacoboni, a neuroscientist at University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. "In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend, we practically are in another person's mind."
Mirror neurons may help cognitive scientists explain how children develop a theory of mind (ToM), which is a child's understanding that others have minds similar to their own.
Over years, cognitive scientists have come up with a number of theories to explain how ToM develops. The "theory theory" and "simulation theory" are currently two of most popular.