Getting a grip on other minds: Mirror neurons, intention understanding, and cognitive empathy

Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.
Social neuroscience (Impact Factor: 2.66). 09/2006; 1(3-4):175-83. DOI: 10.1080/17470910600985605
Source: PubMed


We have previously shown that a right inferior frontal mirror neuron area for grasping responds differently to observed grasping actions embedded in contexts that suggest different intentions, such as drinking and cleaning (Iacoboni, Molnar-Szakacs, Gallese, Buccino, Mazziotta, & Rizzolatti, 2005). Information about intentions, however, may be conveyed also by the grasping action itself: for instance, people typically drink by grasping the handle of a cup with a precision grip. In this fMRI experiment, subjects watched precision grips and whole-hand prehensions embedded in a drinking or an eating context. Indeed, in the right inferior frontal mirror neuron area there was higher activity for observed precision grips in the drinking context. Signal changes in the right inferior frontal mirror neuron area were also significantly correlated with scores on Empathic Concern subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a measure of emotional empathy. These data suggest that human mirror neuron areas use both contextual and grasping type information to predict the intentions of others. They also suggest that mirror neuron activity is strongly linked to social competence.

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    • "Specifically, overlapping brain areas (including the mirror neuron network and the limbic system) are activated when imitating or merely observing facial expressions (Carr et al., 2003; Molenberghs et al., 2012). Also, mirror neuron activity has been related to emotional empathy, indicating that mirror neurons play a key role in the understanding of other people's emotions (Kaplan and Iacoboni, 2006). Thus, the mirror neuron system is essential and fundamental for social interaction where people have to coordinate their behavior with others and anticipate and integrate the behavioral and emotional consequences of their own and others' actions (see also Sobhani et al., 2012). "
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    • "People perceive and interpret the feelings and actions of others through the perspective of their own actions, developing complex understanding known as social cognition (McGovern, 2007). Many argue that the ability to empathize is based on the activation of mirror neurons (Dapretto et al., 2006; Iacoboni, 2009; Kaplan & Iacoboni, 2006). Those with a high ability to empathize show strong activation of these cortical areas during social emotional interaction, especially when observing the pain of others ( Jackson, Brunet, Meltzoff, & Decety, 2006). "
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    • "Our third measure was also designed to assess affect sharing, reflecting the proposition that people understand and interpret emotional facial expressions by automatically simulating (i.e., by empathizing with) the observed expression (Preston and de Waal, 2002; Kaplan and Iacoboni, 2006). Although this 'simulation account' has been disputed (Gallese and Sinigaglia, 2011), it implies that people with high IA, who experience their own emotions more strongly, are likely to perform well when recognizing facial expressions in the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test (Baron- Cohen et al., 2001). "
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