More than twenty years ago, scientists made a breakthrough that altered our understanding of human behavior in fundamental ways: they discovered empathy. While observing a group of monkeys, they noticed that certain brain cells were activated both when one member of the group grabbed a peanut and when he or she watched others do the same. Later found to exist in human beings, these “mirror neurons” explain why we wince when we see someone fall off a bike or stub a toe.
The discovery of mirror neurons has challenged our understanding of everything from language and philosophy to psychotherapy. According to neuroscientistVilayanur Ramachandran, they are the source of the first forays by human beings into complex social behavior, and thereby form “the basis of civilization.”
Today, empathy seems to be everywhere.
Michael Zakaras and Lennon Flowers