The tension in the stadium was palpable and cricket fans around the world were on the edge of their seats. With two overs left, India’s chances of winning the World Cup semifinal against New Zealand seemed grim, until Captain Cool himself walked onto the pitch. However, three balls into the first over, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was run out and everyone watching the match fell into collective despair.
Meanwhile, across the globe, an audience was gripping their seats anxiously as Peter Parker took on Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home, sighing in relief only when he saves the day.
While these two events may seem completely unrelated, the reaction of the audience witnessing them are not. Why do humans get so invested in watching movies, sports and other events?
According to scientists, the presence of mirror neurons in our brains is what makes us react to such situations with such intensity. Now, what are mirror neurons and how do they play such a large role in the social behaviour of humans?
Mirror neurons are brain cells which are specialized to respond to an action, regardless of whether we perform it or witness it. Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, the author of Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect to Others, explains it best. “Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions,” he said to Scientific American. This essentially means that these neurons are responsible for the way we interact socially.
Mirror neurons are also linked to empathy, though why and how some people are more empathetic than others, is still being studied.
“[These] neurons also fire when I simply watch another person—watch you reach out and do exactly the same action. So these neurons are performing a virtual reality simulation of your mind, your brain. Therefore, they’re constructing a theory of your mind—of your intention—which is important for all kinds of social interaction,” explains another neuroscientist, Dr VS Ramachandran in an interview.
It all began in the 1990s when a group of Italian researchers who were studying macaque monkeys noticed that a particular type of neuron was activated in the brain. This happened not only when the monkeys grabbed an object, but also when the monkeys saw another one performing the same action. This neuron was later identified to be the mirror neuron by neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, who sought to determine that if watching and performing an action activated this part of the monkeys’ brains, it could perhaps be reproduced in humans as well.
Following this, in 1995, a research conducted and published by Rizzolatti and his team determined that there was evidence of mirror neurons in humans, even if they were unable to prove their existence at the time. These studies opened scientists up to a new world of understanding human behaviour. They had initially hypothesised that autistic individuals had a “broken” mirror neuron system, which affected their ability to socialise in the same way as their peers. This theory was later disproved after several individuals on the autism spectrum were found to have functional mirror neurons.
Empathy, behaviour and activated mirror neurons
Whether you’re sitting at the movies, watching your favourite athlete, or merely observing a random person, mirror neurons play a large role in the way that we interpret the world around us.
Experts believe that social behaviour is not about a matter of self-reflection, but is rather about the ability to feel what another individual is feeling because the same process is taking place in you. More studies are now being done to determine how humans develop empathy and the manner in which humans develop and acquire social skills. In the long term, scientists believe mirror neurons will provide the answers to the mechanism by which communication and language skills are also developed.