Once the go-to explanation for empathy, the evidence that we have them is sketchy at best.
In 1992, scientists at Italy’s University of Parma announced the genuinely exciting discovery that certain neurons in the premotor cortex of macaques fire under two quite different conditions: when the monkeys execute a specific action like reaching for food and when they merely observe an experimenter performing that action. Until then, the textbook wisdom in neuroscience had been that brain cells execute an action or observe one—not both.
The Parma find seemed to show that “cells in the motor system fire when I see you make a movement, and they’re the same ones that fire when I make that movement,” according to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of the University of California, Los Angeles. “We didn’t think the brain was organized this way.”
In 1996, these cells got their intriguing moniker, reflecting that the neurons “mirrored” observed behavior by firing as if the observer were not just seeing the action but also executing it.