Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

Motor Resonance and Empathy in Children

Academic journal article Cognitie, Creier, Comportament

Motor Resonance and Empathy in Children

Article excerpt


In the last decades, abundant evidence from behavioral and imaging studies has suggested that a specialized neural network known as the mirror neuron system (MNS) could underlie empathy. Despite the fact that the properties of the adult MNS brain are now well known, we are yet to describe its emergence and development throughout infancy, childhood and adolescence. In this review, we present evidence describing the emergence and development of empathy in the early years of life. It is proposed that the development of empathetic abilities is linked to the neurobiological development of the MNS, which may be present at birth in a rudimentary form and refined through social experiences and brain maturation.

KEYWORDS: empathy, mirror neuron system, development, motor resonance.


Empathy can be defined as the affective and cognitive capacity to understand and share the emotions, feelings and mental state of others, without any direct emotional stimulation to oneself, and without confusion between the self and others (Decety & Jackson, 2004). A growing body of evidence suggests that the mirror neuron system (MNS) plays a fundamental role in empathy and social cognition in general (Gallese, 2003). It has also been proposed that the basic neuronal mechanism enabling "mirroring" could be in place at birth, and then evolve as an individual is exposed to the actions and emotions of others (Lepage & Theoret, 2007). Despite the fact that considerable research has focused on detailing the existence and properties of the MNS in the adult brain, little is known about its emergence and development throughout infancy, childhood, and adolescence. A better understanding of the developing MNS would be of great theoretical and clinical interest, particularly with regards to neurodevelopmental disorders in which MNS abnormalities are concomitant to significant deficits in empathy and other aspects of social cognition. In this article, we provide an overview of adult MNS properties and review neuroscientific data supplying arguments in favour of the implication of the MNS in empathy and social cognition, with an emphasis on the early developmental stages of empathy. Possible implications of the outlined neuroscientific evidence for the development of empathy will be also discussed. Specifically, it is suggested that the development of empathic abilities is linked to the neurobiological development of the MNS.

The motor resonance theory of social cognition

Monkey MNS

Mirror neurons are a particular category of visuo-auditory-motor neurons originally discovered in area F5 of the monkey premotor cortex, using single cell recordings. These neurons discharge both when a monkey does a specific action and when it sees or hears another individual, monkey or human, doing a similar action (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rizzolatti, 1996; Kohler et al., 2002; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004; Rizzolatti, Fadiga, Gallese, & Fogassi, 1996). One of the main hypotheses regarding the functional role of the monkey MNS involves action understanding (Rizzolatti, Fogassi, & Gallese, 2001). The hypothesized mechanism suggests that during the observation of a particular action performed by another individual, the visual representation of that action juxtaposes with its own motor representation in the brain of the observer. In other words, the MNS allows the monkey to understand the actions of others because it automatically activates the motor representation corresponding to that which would spontaneously be generated during active action, and whose outcome is known to the acting individual (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004).

Human MNS

Although the direct observation of mirror neurons by means of single-cell recordings has yet to be done in humans, many recent studies have convincingly inferred the presence of mirror neurons in humans using non-invasive neuroimaging techniques. …

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