It has been proposed that the human mirror neuron system (MNS) plays an integral role in mediating empathy. In this review, we critically examine evidence from three bodies of research that have been cited as supporting this notion: (1) behavioral studies that have examined the relationship between imitation and empathy, (2) findings from functional neuroimaging studies that report a positive correlation between MNS activation and self-report on an empathy questionnaire, and (3) observations of impaired imitation and empathy in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In addition, we briefly review lesion studies of the neural correlates of imitation and empathy. Current evidence suggests that the MNS is broadly involved in empathy, but at this stage there has been limited consideration of its various forms, including motor, emotional, and cognitive empathy. There are also various forms of imitation, encompassing emotional and non-emotional, automatic, and voluntary actions. We propose that the relationship between imitation and empathy may vary depending on the specific type of each of these abilities. Furthermore, these abilities may be mediated by partially distinct neural networks, which involve the MNS to a variable degree.
- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Mirror neuron system