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Episode 12: Mirror neurons – how we live the emotions of others – with Prof. Christian Keysers

By August 27, 2022August 28th, 2022No Comments

Episode 12: Mirror neurons – how we live the emotions of others – with Prof. Christian Keysers

Why are we so affected by the emotions of people around us? Why do people seem to express different levels of empathy? And what are mirror neurons? In this episode we find the answers to these and many more questions about the social brain. Prof. Keysers was part of the team in Italy that found mirror neurons, a discovery that has changed our understanding of human nature. Here we take a journey through the empathic brain and learn why we have the ability to not only see what others are doing or experiencing but to feel it in ourselves.

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Main topic notes

  • What are mirror neurons? [02:54]
  • Where are mirror neurons located? [05:05]
  • Emotional contagion and how our feelings transfer between us [07:51]
  • Do we have more mirror neurons at birth? [09:45]
  • How our own abilities affect how we perceive and interact with the world [10:33]
  • How empathy is biased to turn on and off [13:50]
  • How empathy can be increased or decreased [15:10]
  • The importance of empathic wisdom [19:03]
  • When the feeling of increasing distance to someone affects our behavior [19:39]
  • Increasing our wisdom through reflection [21:25]
  • How emotional states affect the communication between people [23:23]
  • Learning to understand and regulate our interactions with others [24:29]
  • The fluidity of empathy [26:33]
  • Empathy as a skill to develop [28:32]
  • Genetic variations in empathic expression [29:13]
  • How to become a better leader through listening [30:11]
  • Being intentional about how we affect our environment [32:10]
  • The effects of an unstable environment during childhood [33:42]
  • How our connection to our own emotions affect our ability to empathize [35:46]
  • Emotions and feelings [38:45]
  • The importance of emotional literacy [41:20]
  • The balance between understanding ourselves and others [44:49]

Main articles

    The book: The Empathic Brain – How the Discovery of Mirror Neurons Changes Our Understanding of Human Nature
    Borja Jimenez KC, Abdelgabar AR, De Angelis L, McKay LS, Keysers C, Gazzola V. Changes in brain activity following the voluntary control of empathy. Neuroimage. 2020 Aug 1;216:116529. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116529. Epub 2020 Jan 10. PMID: 31931155.
    Thioux M, Keysers C. Empathy: shared circuits and their dysfunctions. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2010;12(4):546-52. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2010.12.4/mthioux. PMID: 21319498; PMCID: PMC3181990.


  • Observing the actions of others is not only a matter of seeing and thinking but an act of feeling as well. Seeing the actions of someone else is processed in the brain by mapping them onto your own actions. This means that when you see someone do something, your brain activates the same brain cells you would use to perform that action yourself. These brain cells are called mirror neurons and activate both when we perform an action ourselves or see that action being performed by others.
  • Emotional contagion is how emotions in others trigger similar emotions in ourselves, meaning we tend to get anxious around others who are and feel happier around happy, joyful people. The better you are in tune with your own emotions the better you are at making something out of the information you get from emotional contagion. This layer of understanding can then be used to guide your behavior in the right direction.
  • There is a bias in our ability to empathize. We tend to turn our empathy up for persons we feel more similar with and turn it down for persons we feel are more different from us. We can also adapt our empathy to context, tuning it down if needed to protect our own emotional state. This knowledge gives us the opportunity to cultivate something called emphatic wisdom – the ability to intentionally reflect on and modify our empathy towards others based on context. We have the choice to intentionally create more empathy towards others through perspective taking and active listening, a skill that is particularly important in leadership, relationships and parenting.
  • It is important to learn to listen to oneself as well. There needs to be a balance between focus on one’s own needs and experiences and those of others. If we are well in tune with our own bodies and emotions we are also better able to understand those of others and better able to navigate them. And we need to be kind and loving to ourselves, so we can create a positive experience equally for ourselves and others around us.

More from Prof. Christian Keysers

Google scholar

Social brain lab