Gesture, it turns out, is a key element to empathy. If you get hurt, my body winces. My body reacts to your body’s movement. I’m not forming these thoughts into words and sentences and arguments. I want to tell you that our bodies understand all of this before our minds do-- I want to say that as I’m watching dance, or his hands, there is a conversation that is bypassing my head and happening directly with my body. But all that is mediated through neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons, they call them.
“We use our body to communicate our intentions and our feelings," says Marco Iacoboni of the UCLA Brain Mapping Center. "The gestures, facial expressions, body postures we make are social signals, ways of communicating with one another. 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. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people. The way mirror neurons likely let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to “simulate” the intentions and emotions associated with those actions. When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing."