Mirror neurons

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I don’t think we’ve ever witnessed before such depths of human tragedy as the horror caused by super typhoon Yolanda.

Perhaps it was because so many lives were snuffed out through one of the most terrifying ways, by drowning—and their bloated, decomposed corpses would be left for days where they settled after the waters receded, or lined up along streets to be collected many days later, never mind Mar Roxas’ debate with a foreign correspondent that what he saw were “not the same bodies.”

Perhaps it was because of the appalling number of victims, never mind President Aquino’s arguing with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that a police general’s estimate of 10,000 dead was just due to his “emotional trauma”. More than a week after Yolanda hit, bodies were still being retrieved beneath the rubble or as they were washed ashore.

Media’s vivid coverage of human suffering undoubtedly prodded the outpouring of help for Yolanda’s victims, from here and the world: orphaned little girls shivering in the cold of flood waters, stunned mothers looking for the bodies of their husbands, and children on the roadside begging for water.


Again, our species’ indomitable spirit shines through, that in the midst of tragedy, we assert what is noble in our humanity, our capacity to feel the pain of our fellowmen as they do, and to reach out to help them.

Who has a deficiency in mirror neurons? Boy, left crying as he watches Yolanda victims; right, Aquino, interviewed by CNN’s Amanpour.

Who has a deficiency in mirror neurons? Boy, left crying as he watches Yolanda victims; right, Aquino, interviewed by CNN’s Amanpour.

But why do we feel the pain of others? Why did a little boy in a video that had become viral, cry profusely as he watched a TV broadcast of horrified people after the storm surge in Tacloban, as if he was feeling their terror? To be frank, I was surprised myself at the tug in my chest and at my eyes getting moist when I watched a grown man bawl through a satellite phone lent to him by CNN’s Anderson Cooper when he got to reach his mother, and cry like a boy in Visayan, “Mama, why did this happen to me?”

Spark of the Divine

Maybe we do have a spark of the Divine in our hearts, and that, as that old hippie graffiti claims, “God is Love,” and what makes us noble is that we feel for others as if we were all brothers and sisters in one big family on earth.

There are, however, other explanations, but which I would emphasize do not diminish at all our noble capacity for empathy, just as the Darwinian truth that we are hard-wired to reproduce our genes does not lessen the wonder —and excitement—of romantic love.

The most exciting and interesting scientific finding why we feel what others do is the discovery of so-called “mirror neurons” in our brains. (Brain neurons are the microscopic basic stuff that creates our “minds”).

Italian scientists in 1992 first observed the phenomenon in the brains of macaque monkeys. Certain groups of neurons in certain parts of one monkey’s brain fired when he performed a particular action, grabbing a peanut from a container, for instance.

What was surprising was that another monkey watching the first had certain neurons in the corresponding part of his brain also firing. (If you have to ask, the scientists used electrodes planted in the monkeys’ brains). That is, the observing monkey had a kind of brain neurons that were “mirroring” the firing of the other’s neurons.

While initially ignored, neuroscientists would later on rush to study the phenomenon not only among macaque monkeys but also, and more so, on humans, especially as new technology such as functional magnetic resonance imagine (fMRI) has allowed them to peer into human brain activity without having to invasively plant electrodes into their skulls.

Scientific studies have been piling up confirming the existence of such “mirror neurons” in humans and in most other mammals: neurons in one person fire to mirror those in another person undergoing a particular emotion. Thus, that person feels roughly what the other person feels. The exact location of the mirror neurons in the brain has even been pinpointed, at the inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe.

Single most important story

Renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran called the discovery of mirror neurons one of the “single most important unpublicized stories of the decade.”

Why? Because it unearths the physical basis of such a fuzzy idea as Divinely given “brother love” and explains why we sympathize with others’ suffering.

That is, we feel for others not because or not just because we are devoted Christians following the teaching of Christ, or because our minds have been formed by years of education and acculturation that we embrace as our own the humanity’s noble values that evolved over centuries of civilization.

The mirror-neuron theory says that to some extent—and neuroscientists are still inconclusive exactly to what extent—we have empathy, we feel others’ pain as ours, because evolution has created in our brains certain neurons which fire in the same way certain neurons fire in the brain of somebody we observe as being in pain, or in other emotions, creating what we feel as empathy.

That is, the pain (as well as other emotions) of another person we see as suffering is replicated to some extent in our own brains. It is not even rare: it is the reason we pay to watch movies, and the explanation why so many young people can even feel vampires’ and wizards’ out-of-this-world sufferings and yearnings.

Why has Homo sapiens evolved such mirror neurons? Evolutionary scientists speculate that without the nearly “automatic” cooperation made possible by mirror neurons in the brains of our ancestors, humans with their small physique would have been easily driven to extinction by bigger predators.

The discovery of mirror neurons has been revolutionary, claiming to explain such centuries-old puzzles as why we have a “theory of mind” (i.e., our certainty that others have minds just like ours and are not automatons) and significantly, why one man can be a mass murderer when another can’t even slit a chicken’s neck for dinner.

Deficiency of mirror neurons

The simplistic answer to the latter puzzle—although data are still incomplete—is that for some still-unknown reason, there are humans who have a deficiency of mirror neurons, or have defective or “broken” mirror neurons so that they can’t really feel the pain of others, the extreme case being a sadistic murderer.

What is intriguing is that scientists are now scrambling—because of the disease’s reported increasing incidence—to investigate the hypothesis most articulately proposed by University of California in Los Angeles neuroscientist Marco Iacobini: that “malfunctioning mirror neurons are likely responsible for the lack of empathy and theory of mind found in severely autistic people.”

The theory is that autism is simply the extreme case of malfunctioning mirror neurons. A milder form of that would be the lack of empathy for others.

If Iacoboni’s thesis is proven right though, it could explain columnist Francisco Tatad’s depiction (in his Nov. 15 column) of President Aquino in his interview with CNN’s Amanpour a few days after Yolanda struck:

“Aquino looked completely detached, uninvolved, unfeeling, unaffected by the incredible human tragedy that has covered the world with grief and pain.”

If you think Mr. Tatad is just biased against Aquino, read the following message emailed to me by a Japanese-American college student in California whom I don’t know from Adam, but who just had to tell me what he thought of the President’s CNN interview:

“When I saw Pres. Aquino on TV, he seems rather ‘above the people’ and annoyed at others’ incompetence, and annoyed that people should bother him about grave human suffering.”

tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com
www.rigobertotiglao.com and www.trigger.ph

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38 Comments

  1. Noong bumisita si Pnoy sa Taclobn City, dalawang araw matapos manalasa ang bagyong Yolanda, bigla siyang nag-walkout nang hindi niya nagustuhan ang nangyayari sa miting ng NDRRMC… Dahil dito, naisip ko na deficient sa MIRROR NEURONs si Pnoy.

    Hindi na niya pinansin ang maraming patay na nagkalat sa daan.
    Hindi na niya pinansin ang maraming taong nagugutom at walang mainom na malinis na tubig.
    Hindi na niya inisip na pwedeng gamitin ang mga helicopters (military or privately-owned) para magdala ng tubig at emergency food.

    At tuloy gamitin din sa “search and rescue” operation para mailigtas pa ang mga malubhang nasugatan, o lumulutang pa sa gitna ng dagat o wounded at natatabunan ng mga debris.

    Sa halip, galit ang umiral kina Pnoy at Mar Roxas dahil maraming namatay at nasirang ari-arian at balak pang imbestigahan ang Mayor ng Tacloban City… .Is this their priority? Instead of giving foods and water to hapless typhoon victims? Both of them are suffering from deficiency of mirror neurons.

    Hindi nagustuhan ni Pnoy ang estimate ng Eastern Visayas regional police chief Elmer Soria, na mga 10,000 ang nangamatay sa pananalasa ng Bagyong Yolanda, kaya tinanggal agad sa puwesto. Another sign of deficiency of mirror neurons by Pnoy?

    Limang araw na ang nakalipas, dumaraing pa rin ang mga biktima na walang pagkain at tubig na maiinom. May food packs ngang dumating pero hindi mai-distribute agad kasi… ire-repack pa sa plastic bags na may tatak na “DSWD”. Dahil magulo at walang sistema ang pamamahagi ng relief goods, nadismaya sina American Journalist Anderson Cooper at Paula Hancocks of CNN at nagsabing “there is no presence of government in Tacloban City”. Muli… nagalit si Pnoy, lalo na si Korina Sanchez, dahil ipinagtatanggol niya ang asawa niyang si Mar Roxas,na takaw-publicity at inaakusahang namumulitika sa pamamahagi ng relief goods.

    Di ba nag-iisang anak na lalaki si Pnoy?… kaya hindi malayong lumaki siyang isang SPOILED BRAT. Gusto niya, siya ang “PALAGING” nasusunod. Makasarili… at walang pakialam sa nararamdaman ng ibang naghihikahos sa buhay.

    Kaya heto… manhid siya sa daing ng kababayan niya na pawang biktima ng bagyong Yolanda, at halatang kulang-kulang na siya sa MIRROR NEURONS!!!

  2. I didnt vote for this president. But this is what we have got if people will keep on voting politician based on popularity and not by credentials or accomplishment. Sense of sympathy or empathy can not be taught overtime. Maybe our president needs to be treated for this or at least on how to get in touched with his own feelings.

  3. Pnoy is healthy, perfectly healthy.

    Sorry guys, he is still our President until 2016.

    Either you support him or remain bitter for years!

    He has the heart of Cory, the courage and the brains of Ninoy! San ka pa!

  4. Herminio Geronimo on

    GREAT, GREAT, GREAT! I was totally blown away by your article. Your articles before on happiness based on science speak a lot about you, positive of course. But this one really separates you from the pack. Mirror neurons? WOW!

  5. Perhaps BS has the similarity with John Wayne Gacy. They Lived as a normal person, but inside their mind laid a devastating illness. perhaps, we can compare them why, in Jonah Lehrer’s “How we decide” summarizes the epilogue of how human we are. How devastating we can be in terms of decision making. I thought BS is a mirror neutron of the same man.

  6. Sir to add to that, maraming may autism na di halata at undiagnosed. Maraming natatapos ng college din. Karamihan sa may autism organised and very technical. Pag di nasunod ang systema nila nag tatantrums. Like how pnoy want to control the disaster kasi yon ang gusto nyang mangyari. Pag nag iba it’s unacceptable for him kaya ayun naninisi. Pansin ko rin sa kanya he’s so much into details like strength ng building then mga data ang focus nya rather than acting on what is there and what he sees. Ang nga may autism Kasi Hindi pwedeng wala sa plan nila. It’s hard for them to accept pag may nabago. Hindi sila makarelate sa emotions ng iba especial if extraordinary or bago sa kanila. Mapapansin mo yan sa statement nya na wala pa naman daw ganun naging bagyo sa pinas. Mapapansin mo na mas conscious sya sa image nya kaysa sa tao.

  7. I think Aquino is the way he is beause of the terrible shock he got when the RAM led by Enrile backed Coup group of Gringo Honasan tried to assasinate him. He was badly injured and the shock of almost being killed has changed the young man (at that time). I can have only sympathy for the man but in the same case I have no respect for the powers that be – including the U.S. State Department – for installing an incompetent President upon us – their unwanted and unrecognized 52nd State.

  8. I agree with you. I can not see any felling of sympathy of President BS Aquino to the suffering of others, specially the poor.

    The issue of his mental stability was an issue in the last presidential election. Why not ask the release of his medical records (President) to determine once and for all if he is fit as President of the Filipno people before it is too late.

  9. I once had a childhood friend, a Spanish mestizo. This friend of mine can be a classic example of an individual suffering from mirror neurons malfunction.He seemed not to be affected of what was happening around him. He always had a passive reaction to every situation. His facial expression remains constant all the time so that it’s hard to trace if he is sad, joyful or simply on his normal mood. Simply put, he was an emotionless individual. But other than this deficit in his character he looked as normal as all of us. During those days, we were completely unaware of what autism is. It’s only recently that most of us are made to be aware of & recognized autistic persons. President Aquino exhibits the same type of facial reactions. Constantly wearing a smile even in the face of very serious situations. Is he suffering from mirror neurons malfunction? Is this a reflective sign of a psychological malady? Is he of the same category w/ my childhood friend?

  10. Kukulkan!!!!!!!! (then off comes the head rolling) :) time for zealots to open their hearts and minds… :)

  11. It’s becoming clear that rich people have lived such an insulated, pampered existence with servants and every whim catered to, that they don’t experience much empathy. They never had to and didn’t need to empathize with others. Most of us depend on others for help but the rich didn’t need others. Aquino always looks like he’s coming to watch a tennis match.

  12. in short pnoy is autistic, unfortunately he is the president, how come? his mother died and his allies made the most out of the dead woman by drafting him president. cruel to the woman, cruel to the country

  13. Ha..ha..ha… That one Japanese-American student, whom you don’t know from Adam, can influence, a supposedly, well seasoned opinion writer is a very clear indication of where you are coming from. In your coming articles, why don’t you consult some 6th graders you know personally. They will be a better source than some one from a far flung place who does not know your culture.

    • Mr. Mar Royo,

      Reading your comment I could say without talking to you personally
      your a born psycho looney too like the present dispensation.
      You can’t even discern what is right or wrong and yet be little
      the comment of that japanese student who were able to read
      thru his conscience the kind of personality that p’noy have.

      Pls consult a psychiatrist to find out also if are autistic.

      Berny

    • Out of all the scientific facts and arguments Mr. Tiglao lined up in this article, all you could remember was that incident on “one Japanese-American student, whom (Mr. Tiglao) don’t know from Adam”? How about your idea on mirror neurons? Or perhaps a rebuttal on the possible implication that your idol is deficient of these?

  14. Phylliss Quinn on

    I have no reason to disagree with the mirror neurons theory that Mr. Tiglao explains in his column. No reason either to disagree that — if it is true really that the Filipino president today has this problem — then the Philippines has a very serious problem.
    I now only propose to Mr. Tiglao’s readers NOT to conclude that because the absence or deficiency of mirror-neurons is what makes some people evil and that this scientific finding is another proof that good and evil and God does not exist.

    I humbly make this reminder having read in Mr, Tiglao’s columns and the reactions of several of his many fans that he is a non-believer and even mocks and attacks the Catholic Church, religion and those who believe. In this column he does mention these mirror-neurons as the explanation to be preferred for human empathy and feeling for the suffering of others less on belief in Jesus Christ and the Divine.

    What I humbly remind him and others is that the mirror-neuron theory is NOT contradictory to the FACT of the existence of God — the creator of everything and every being including fleas and monkeys and Mr. Tiglao and President Aquino. God in his wisdom created human beings, monkeys, dogs and elephants with many thousand kinds of neurons.

  15. Surely Mr.Tiglao you are equating lack of this neurons with autism. But you dont need to be scientific to highlight the obvious. Study the family tree and you will find that he is a product of a family many of whose members had bad character traits. From that that alone you will conclude that bad genes will be in the family and for generations to come (Noynoy and Joshua are a confirmation). Since day one as president, he displayed irrational behavior worthy of a perfect subject for Behavioral Psychiatrists. He also did when he was a congressman and a senator for many years. Unfortunately you Filipinos elected him President and your country has never been the same. Your people have suffered and witnessed more “weird” instances. Only certified Psychiatrists can spot a “clinical case” in need of medication or confinement to “reduce the risk to himself and to society.” In his case medication and confinement are totally taboo being the son of “hero” and an ex-President hence the patient is getting worse and possibly beyond medication. Anderson Cooper and C. Amanpour must have detected that “something is not right” with your leader and highlighted by his “weird replies.” Yheyve done your country a big favor by exposing a certified mental patient. It is up to your people to make the critical next move – RETAIN or REMOVE.

    • Correct. Pnoy has a psychiatric profile at Ate neo. This was kept hidden by his party mates in pursuit of the party’s interests and not the citizenry. He was a sure winner then because of the huge number of sympathy votes caused by his mother’s death. I go for removing him .

  16. To express the fact or even the truth of the present situation is not enough to characterize a person or an event. We must go beyond that to get the “whole” picture. The existent context definitely amplifies the gravity of the concern, this time of calamity. The present pain explodes to express the outrage over the insufficient response or the attitude of the responder to the needed solution. However, we have forgotten the “then” of the “whole” story of the place, or the rapidly changing world. We have forgotten all of us have limitations or deficiencies. Instead of supporting everyone’s effort no matter how deficient, we prefer to attack, minimize their effort. There is a sense of self-glorification in this. To do so disperses the national energies to meet the crises. Certainly there are lots of situation in which the government ought to be reminded of its duty and be castigated for it misuse of power. This is not the right time. This is the time to work together. This is the time to encourage each other. Get back to them later over this after the work is done.

  17. hilda s. clave on

    The lack of emphathy of PNoy was so glaring in that CNN interview by Amanpour. That perpetual smirk is so glaring that he was not affected at all by the suffering he saw around.Now the whole knows that we have a president who is unfeeling, incompetent and perpetual fault finder. Mr. Tiglao, can you also do a research whether the president’s inability to own up his failures and say sorry for his failures is also a result of lack of that mirror neurons. That he was born like that and the people who urged him to run for president knew his mental condition. Are they not also equally to be blamed for equally being unfeeling for us by giving this kind of president just so their personal interests will be served?

  18. Very well-written and interesting article. I agree that the deficiency in mirror neurons probably explains Aquino’s behavior.
    It is ideal to have a President who can empathize and sympathize with other people. And of course, one who is competent and can make quick, wise decisions when needed.

  19. Ciony Kournikova on

    Just a couple of weeks ago, my class in anatomy and physiology, while discussing central nervous system, was shown a video of Ramachandran’s research and it made me smile to read an article about it from someone 7000 miles away.

    I agree with you that the president seem detached, no emotions. After such devastation, instead of showing some empathy and assurance, he talks about filing charges to local officials whom themselves needs counseling after what they’ve been through. How sad….can you call that projection?

  20. The observation of one Japanese American student watching TV, in the comfort of his room, in a far away place is enough to shape your thinking re BEHAVIUOR of Pnoy. You, Tatad and that student must all be related. Same DNA! People know who you really are and Tatad. I hope for your early retirement.

    • Mar Royo maybe you have to go and have your mental state checked too. Like your boss and idol, you simply cannot grasp the whole article and picks bits of pieces and amplify it for your own convenience. So much like your idol #pnoy who from the start has shown the inability and incompetence to lead this country. What can we expect from a nonperforming senator and congressman who just felt so privileged to be an Aquino that that is his only basis for running last 2010?? Isnt that selfishness and a lack of empathy, clearly? Knowing you’re not qualified at all but led yourself and other poor and brainless Filipinos to believe that you CAN BE THE PRESIDENT, with all its responsibilities and functions no more and no less?! Well that is selfishness and callousness to the Nth degree. Mag isip ka nga sampu ng mga kampon na makadilaw! And nga tulad mong baluktot mag isip ang nagsasadlak sa atin sa kahirapan at katangahan. I suggest you go see a psychiatrist to be sure. If not then go back to dreamland and kill yourself.

  21. If I remember right, the mental issue of this president was brought to light during
    the past election. That he was subjected to psychiatric evaluation and that he
    was found to emotional disturb, etc. But the people then did not mind because
    his parents did. Sympathy, that’s the problem with us Filipinos. We vote according
    to emotions not minding at all what this individual psychopant can and will do
    to the country. Honestly, I am not a politician nor a political analyst but this is
    the only time that I heard and see a noynoying, irresponsible, liar, ignorant, insane
    vindictive and bias president. From Macapagal, Marcos, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo
    except the two Aquinos who probably have hereditary traits of doing nothing. At
    least these mentioned presidents were lesser evils. Noong panahon nila, hindi
    naman tayo ganoon na nakakahiya sa mundo. In politics they say, its a matter
    of selecting the better of two evils. Its better to select the better evil na gumagawa
    kaysa evil na sinungaling, noynoying, vindictive, liar, bias or ignorant. Masyadong
    garapal na ignorante at nakakahiya kapag ang president mo ay mentally disturbed.

  22. Sir, you have explained it in a simple manner what mirror neurons are. Of which as human beings we possessed such in our brains. If that is so, how shall we call a human being who does not possess such quality to feel for others? Shall I say he is even less of an animal like the monkeys who can react to a certain situation. God Bless us for having an autistic president who could not feel anything when certain calamities would hit us, when thousands of death is not enough for him to grieved. We had been warned before the presidential election in 2010 that this man is mentally retarded. Only the yellow media were able to damped it with one liner slogan, “Kung walang kurap walang mahirap” Three years after he corrupted every congressmen and senators with bribery worth hundreds of billions of taxpayers money. Now we know why we can not move on because our government is run by mirrorless neurotic animal.

  23. It’s not time for politics. We know who acts and those who don’t! There is too much blowing of smoke in our a..! If you have not been at the affected sites and also with the people you criticize then you are part of the problem! Filipinos can decern who are politicking. I really don’t think you know much about “mirror neuron”.I am simple OFW who donated small amount of cash. This is what we all Filipinos should be doing. Let’s stop criticizing. Grow up!!

  24. I take issue with the writer using the word “we’ve” in the first sentence. I ‘witnessed’ the tsunami in 2004 where over 200,000 people died. Maybe he feels that because it happened in the Philippines, it is worse than any other event that happened in any other country and that anyone who reads his article would surely agree.

  25. We should demand now that Noynoy should show his psychiatric report. Mahilig din lang siya sa investigations, I think Filipinos deserve the right to know kung bakit ang unika hijo ni Cory behaves and talks like this. He walks, smiles, and plays like his playmate Joshua. Kawawa naman ang Pilipinas, meron pang tatlong taon etong kalbong eto sa Malacanang.

  26. You have gone to great lengths explaining and demonstrating scientifically what we, the people, already know about the abnoy machine-elected occupant at Malacanang. He is an authentic schizophrenic under constant medication (of Abilify and Seroquel) to be kept lucid. When a disaster or catastrophe occurs, he disappears because he experiences an attack and therefore has to be propped up by his medication.

    Is it any wonder then that it is urgent that we get him out of Malacanang in order to have a peaceful and regular existence for us.

  27. BS Aquino is without a doubt a retard. He knows this, that’s why he said Mar Roxas would run the gov’t if their tandem won the lection, not because he owed him for giving way to his candidacy as President. Over 3 years this fraud (Pnoy) has succeeded in fooling the Filipino poor and his yellow brigade has enriched themselves with pork. Filipinos deserve the leaders they elect, sorry to say. Walang man-loloko kung walang ma-loloko.

  28. __ If you have watched in youtube, The Fall of the REPUBLIC, you will not wonder anymore why PNoy has no empathy to the victims of typhoon Yolanda. I’ve watched him via TFC, and his demeanor (handing out banig to couple”victims”) didn’t show at all any sympathy to the recipients. Why bother?

  29. Mr. Tiglao, the mere fact that noynoy was caught having that smile when he went to see the Luneta hostage bus can be likened to his speeches where there is no tint nor hint of feeling while doing his sing-song way of public speaking! His speeches comes across as uncaring and is only being read to be finished in the fastest time he can! The picture in your article also shows him with some kind of smile where compare to other leaders who are speaking in this kind of tragedy would be seen with so much sorrow which shows with them not really trying! Noynoy has that face of uncaring and happy go lucky way!

  30. I believe that if additional research was to be conducted on other animals, specifically mammals, mirror neurons would be found to exist. I cite as an example elephant behavior in what appears to be a grieving process when a member of a group dies. The bones of the dead elephant are visited over a lengthy period of time indicating to me that they experience a sense of loss. Another example is instances of dog behavior when it’s master or mistress dies. I think additional research will reveal that the development of mirror neurons was one of the factors that enabled early mammals to succeed in the face of terrible odds against them. Humans represent the capstone of that development. Thank you, Mr. Tiglao, for such a fascinating article.

  31. Thank you for your excellent writing. You are the best since Max. Keep up the good work but be careful my friend you have very powerful people reading you work.