Giacomo Rizzolatti, neuroscientist: ‘Empathy is not something that is understood, it is something that is felt’

The Italian researcher, who discovered mirror neurons, talks to EL PAÍS about how the neural network fosters learning, the role of ideology on emotions and why he’s still happy to be working at age 86

Giacomo Rizzolatti poses in the laboratory that bears his name at the Autonomous University of Madrid.Alvaro Garcia

As a child he escaped the Stalinist purges only to find himself in the heart of fascism. In 1938, his family left Kyiv (then part of the USSR) when he was barely one year old. They ended up in Mussolini’s Italy. A few years later, as a child, he saw his father join the partisans to fight against the fascists. He has seen war and cruelty. And yet, Giacomo Rizzolatti has dedicated his life to researching empathy. Although the truth is that this has happened more out of serendipity than from will.

Rizzolatti studied medicine like his parents. Neurology, because he wanted to understand how the brain works. He performed some notable studies on canon neurons and peripersonal space. But they were overshadowed by a discovery that made him a star in science and earned him the Brain Prize and Spain’s Princess of Asturias award. In 1996, he was at the University of Parma in Italy, studying where in a monkey’s brain the motor system was housed. One day he realized that the neurons that lit up when the ape executed a movement also bustled with activity when he saw others doing the same. The neural network, in some way, reflected other people’s actions as its own, like a mirror. And that’s what he called them. Mirror neurons served to explain the imitation of physical actions. But it was quickly seen that in humans they also explained a certain emotional imitation, such as empathy.

Since then, his work has delved into the implications of this mechanism: it helped him theorize about the origins of autism and how the motor system works. How we are born with a certain amount of empathy and how our experiences and ideology can increase or decrease it. Vilayanur Ramachandran, one of the pioneers of neuroscience, said that these neurons “formed civilization.” The ability to imitate allowed learning on an individual and collective scale. It enabled culture to be created and transmitted. And it allowed connections with other people.

Rizzolatti is 86 years old and still active. He arrives in Madrid in a wheelchair, on his first trip after having a leg amputated due to vascular problems. His hair is white and tousled, as if it were made of cotton. He looks like a mad scientist and talks like an endearing professor. He has just inaugurated a research laboratory at the Science Park of the Autonomous University of Madrid that bears his name. And from the very first question, he seems animated and eager to talk.

Question: How are you feeling?

Answer: I'm fine, I'm fine. I had my leg amputated last year, but I have recovered. This is the first plane trip I have taken since the operation and it has been very pleasant. I am very happy to be here.

Q. So if my mirror neurons do their job, at the end of this interview, I should be a little happier too, right?

A. I don’t know if you’ll be happier, but perhaps we’ll both leave having learned something from each other. The mechanism of mirror neurons is to understand what others are doing. That is, there is a neural system that responds in the same way when I perform an action and when I see someone perform that action. For example, I go to a bar and see a person holding a glass of beer. I understand that he is having a drink because inside my brain there is a copy of the same mechanism. It’s not a cognitive issue, it’s not that I have to think, but rather I immediately understand what he is going to do. This is the mirror mechanism, it is something within us that makes us understand others.

Empathy is very flexible. We can learn things to empathize with new situations

Q. And this applies to physical action, as well as emotions.

A. Yes, it can also be applied to emotions. We have seen that when you cry, certain areas of my brain associated with crying are activated. Empathy is actually a situation where you and I are in the same psychological state. It is not something that is understood, it is something that is felt inside. I can connect with emotions intellectually. If I read in the newspaper that there was an earthquake in Morocco with several deaths, I might feel sad. But within my neural system there is no pain. On the other hand, if I go out on the street and see a traffic accident, I feel the pain inside me. In some ways, it’s like you and I become one person.

Q. If physical imitation and emotional empathy are located in the same neuronal area, do autism disorders occur in the motor system?

A. This is our idea, that they begin with an alteration in the motor system. In autistic children this system does not develop as well as in the rest. And this has consequences, because if you do not act appropriately, others do not respond to you. You don’t understand why you don’t have a well-structured mirror mechanism of what others do. There is a cascade effect, a series of events that, according to our hypothesis, arise from an initial genetic-based motor deficit. And from there, you don’t do movements well, you don’t interpret actions well, you withdraw into yourself, others no longer treat you well... But you have to understand that autism contains a very wide range of disorders, too, including cognitive deficits.

Q. All these ideas were born in an experiment you did with monkeys. Do animals have empathy?

A. I don’t know, because over the years we worked on cold mechanisms. Some animals understand action, they understand intention, but we don’t know if they understand emotion. With emotions, we have always worked with humans. Also because, the truth is, this is already quite complicated in itself [laughs].

Q. The idea of mirror neurons has implications that go beyond neurology. How did this discovery impact the world of psychology?

A. Psychology accepted the idea of mirror neurons with difficulty. But philosophers loved it, because phenomenology [the philosophical study of the world and human experience] was based on something similar. The French and German phenomenologists, Husserl and Berlopponti, said that we understand others because others enter into us. So it was a huge French, German and European success. Psychologists were somewhat more reluctant, because they liked cognitive ideas more. But in the end they ended up accepting it too.

Q. You were born in Kyiv. How are you experiencing the war in Ukraine?

A. It’s very bad. My mother was from Kyiv, but she only spoke Russian. I myself only speak Russian, when I was there, there was no Ukrainian nationalism. And I have been experiencing all this with sadness and anger. I was hoping that an agreement could be reached, but now... I don’t know how it will end, but it’s very sad.

Q. Why do you think European society has empathized so much with the Ukrainian people? Some say it’s linked to the fact that they are white and have blue eyes, that a kind of positive racism is at force. Does this make sense? Do we empathize more with those who are most similar to us?

A. Unfortunately it is true. It is something atavistic that we have inherited from primates. You consider whoever is most similar to you a friend. And whoever is different inspires fear. Overcoming this requires a cultural and intellectual effort, so that we can understand that we are all human and that we are all equal. But instinctively one feels that one likes best that which is most like oneself. To appreciate the different, sometimes you have to make an intellectual effort.

Q. And what about to despise the different? If we are all born with a certain amount of mirror neurons, what happens during wars, when entire societies lose empathy towards their neighbors?

A. The best example of this is [Adolf] Eichmann [one of the major organizers of the Nazi Holocaust]. When this Nazi officer was deported to Israel and put on trial, they performed a series of psychological analyses on him and the results were surprising. He was a normal guy, he seemed like a good person, he loved animals, he loved nature, a family man, [he was] perfect. During high school, he had Jewish friends, but then something changed. Reading Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda, he became a Nazi and became convinced that Jews were not human beings. Therefore, for him he shouldn’t feel empathy towards them. His biology could understand that they were people, but ideology modified that perception. It is something that is seen repeatedly in many wars, an effort is made to dehumanize the enemy so that no one empathizes with them.

There are experiments that say that real life is much stronger from an emotional point of view than any movie or video game

Q. So, ideology can block empathy?

A. Very much so, empathy is very flexible. But the good thing is that it also works the other way around. We can learn things to empathize with new situations. We are born with a base, with a set of innate neurons to understand our mother. If the mother is sad, the baby cries. If the mother laughs, so do they. But then we learn certain things and expand on them. It is very important for a child to learn music, to learn to play chess, soccer... because if you know a sport or a game, then you understand much better. You are enriched.

There is a beautiful experiment about this. If one of us watches a dance performance, we will have a little activity in the mirror neurons. But if this same scene is watched by a dancer, there will be enormous activity. That's why former athletes are such good sports commentators. They understand better what is happening, they empathize more with the situation on the field. This is very noticeable when a journalist and a former soccer player comment on a game.

Q. You have used virtual reality glasses in your experiments. Can video games, with their ability to put us in other people’s shoes, foster empathy?

A. I don’t think so. There are experiments that say that real life is much stronger from an emotional point of view than any movie or video game. That’s what worries me about children who always stay at home, they don’t have the relationship that we had when we played ball in the street. Today many children lock themselves up at home and that is why they have less empathy with others.

Q. This is not exclusive to children. Most political discussions and debates are replicated on social networks, where the spread of hate speech is a concern.

A. Exactly, in a space with less empathy, this type of speech flourishes. I don’t know if you know the concept of a meme [an idea that is usually expressed in an image, a GIF or a phrase and is shared on the internet, infecting those who receive it]. Memes are a terrible danger for me because, normally, if you argue, the ideas come to you with a social context. But with memes, this information comes to you and is replicated without context, it’s like platitudes or clichés. Most memes are harmless, but there are others that are not, they can perpetuate ideas without a real, human context, and these have the potential for harm.

Q. You are 86 years old, why are you still working?

A. Nobody asks [elderly Italian conductor] Riccardo Muti why he continues to conduct! [Laughs]. Well, I have been officially retired for a few years, but they gave me the position of emeritus professor, so I have a laboratory, a study, a secretary... And well, even after the operation I go two or three days a week and work with them. I feel more alive, it is very nice to work. Sometimes I also work from home, but going to the university and talking to the young people, to the collaborators... It is very stimulating.

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