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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for our mirror neurons (and empathy)

Lynne Baab • Wednesday January 24 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for our mirror neurons (and empathy)

In the 1980s, neurophysiologists began putting electrodes in the brains of macaque monkeys, and in the early 90s they discovered a new kind of neuron that they named “mirror neuron.” These neurons fired when the monkeys did a certain action, and they also fired when the monkeys saw someone else do the same action. Humans have mirror neurons, too, and later research revealed that about 10-20% of the neurons in human brains have mirror properties. In addition to mirroring other people’s actions, neurologists hypothesize that mirror neurons enable us to feel sad or happy when we see another person feeling sad or happy.

I love to picture a three-month-old baby smiling when their mom or dad smiles at them. Maybe those smiles are activating that beautiful baby’s mirror neurons. Mirror neurons help us learn many kinds of skills, and they also help us empathize. Neurologists disagree about the exact role of mirror neurons in empathy, but at the least, they lay a foundation for empathy. One neuroscientist says it this way in an interview: “Mirror neurons are obviously the starting point for things like empathy, but that’s all it is — I mean, you need much more.” I’ll be writing about that “much more” in the next few weeks.

You may have noticed an explosion of interest in empathy in recent years. Empathy has been studied in relation to just about every area of life: education, medicine, psychology, business, leadership, parenting, friendship, etc. I’d suggest doing an online search or use Google Scholar to look for connections between empathy and your profession or area of interest. You will be amazed at the number of research studies and informal opinions.

In the field of communication studies, empathy is viewed as a component of good listening skills. Here’s a definition of empathy from a communication textbook:

“Empathy is the cognitive process of identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. Scholars recognize that empathy is an important element in understanding and maintaining good interpersonal relationships. When we empathize, we are attempting to understand and/or experience what another person understands and/or experiences.”
—Verderber and Verderber, Inter-Act: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts

I’ve highlighted three key verbs in that definition. When we empathize, we are trying to understand and/or experience what the other person is experiencing. We do that through a process of identification that depends (at least in part) on our mirror neurons. We see another person feeling something, and our brain enables us to feel the same emotion, usually in a limited or incomplete way, but in a way that helps us express empathy. Even though we can never fully feel another person’s emotions, we try to engage with what the other person is feeling and experiencing.

For Christians, two other important concepts must be considered. The word “empathy” is not used in the Bible, but “compassion” and “sympathy” appear frequently (63 and 3 times, respectively). Most of the uses of compassion relate to God or Jesus. “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9).  When Jesus traveled around teaching and healing, and “he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). When Jesus visited the small village Nain and saw the widow whose son had just died, “he had compassion for her” (Luke 7:13).

Christians are commanded to have compassion. The Apostle Paul tells us to clothe ourselves with compassion (Colossians 3:12). Likewise, sympathy is viewed positively. The Apostle Peter encourages Christians to have sympathy for one another (1 Peter 3:8).

Next week I’ll discuss the relationship between empathy, sympathy, and compassion. For this week, I encourage you to pray for something I bet you’ve never prayed for before: your mirror neurons.

Creator God, we praise you that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. You made every cell of our bodies, including the neurons that conduct information all around our bodies and that enable us to feel and express emotion. Today we pray specifically for neurons that fire when we see things happening in other people, especially those neurons that enable us to feel empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Maximize the work of every neuron that helps us perceive what others are experiencing. Help us grow in our ability to engage with the joys and sorrows of the people around us. 

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Next week: the overlaps and distinctions between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Illustration by Dave Baab: his sister Connie with her granddaughter. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

Are you interested in trying spiritual direction? My friend Lisa has opened up some spaces in her spiritual direction practice. Her sessions take place on zoom, so any location works. Lisa is a kind, insightful listener with a deep sense of God’s presence with us.

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