Professor John Bradshaw from Monash University in Melbourne discusses how some people when observing distress and pain in others experience it themselves. Or why, when we see people yawn we are compelled to do the same thing.
Professor John Bradshaw
School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine,
As interviewed by Robyn Williams. Full transcript and audio is at
John Bradshaw: After an earlier Ockham’s address, I was contacted by someone whose deceased husband used bitterly to complain of severe pain whenever he witnessed injury to another. About this time the neuroscience literature was reporting, in monkeys, a new class of nerve cells, mirror neurons, adjacent to motor regions (controlling movement) in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Such neurons activated, fired, not only when the animal executed a goal-directed action, such as reaching for a piece of food, but also whenever another monkey, or the human experimenter, was observed to perform the same goal-directed action. They did not fire when just the food item was seen, or when a meaningless action was observed. In an article I wondered whether we could explain the deceased husband’s experiences of pain, on observing another in distress, through a similar, pain rather than motor-related, mirror system. Since then emotional regions of the brain have also been shown to exhibit mirror neuron activity, firing not only during the experience but also when one observes another personal apparently experiencing such an emotion.