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  • Writer's pictureViktoria Hamma

Mirror Neurons: Their Pivotal Role in Happiness and Depression

Mirror neurons, a fascinating type of brain cell, fire not only when an individual performs an action but also when they observe someone else executing the same action. This remarkable discovery sheds light on how we understand the actions and intentions of others, underlying our capacity for empathy and social cognition [1][3][4][5]. Located in key brain regions such as the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal cortex, mirror neurons play a crucial role in mirroring the behavior we observe in others, facilitating a deeper connection and understanding between individuals [2][6].

The exploration of mirror neurons offers insightful perspectives on their pivotal role in human happiness, empathy, and the psychological underpinnings of disorders such as depression and autism. By examining how these neurons influence our ability to connect with and comprehend others' emotions, we look to unravel the complex interplay between mirror neurons and our mental wellness. Addressing therapeutic approaches that leverage our understanding of where mirror neurons are located, we will delve into the future directions of research in this field, bearing in mind its implications for empathy, social cognition, and beyond [6][9]. Through a compassionate and informative lens, we hope to enrich our understanding of what are mirror neurons, their psychology definition, and their significant impact on our lives, from wellness coaching to addiction recovery [6][7].

The Role of Mirror Neurons in Happiness

Mirror neurons play a pivotal role in fostering empathy and happiness, acting as a neurological pathway that, if not utilized, may diminish over time [12]. The phenomenon of smiling illustrates the contagious nature of emotions facilitated by mirror neurons, highlighting several key aspects:

  • Neurological Contagion of Smiling: When we observe someone smiling, our mirror neurons simulate this action, leading to a neurologically contagious state of happiness. This simulation can boost dopamine levels, enhancing feelings of joy and contentment [3].

  • Emotional Resonance and Connection: Mirror neurons enable us to resonate emotionally with others, accurately understanding and mirroring their emotional states. This capacity for emotional resonance strengthens our social connections and contributes to our overall sense of happiness [13][4].

  • The Power of a Smile: Smiling, even at oneself in the mirror, can activate mirror neurons, helping to alleviate feelings of anxiety and promote a sense of calm [14].

  • The act of smiling has been linked to immune system boosts and potentially longer life spans, underscoring its significance beyond mere social interaction [14].

  • Imitative social games like patty-cake play a role in creating mental maps of others, fostering empathic feelings and illustrating that empathy grows from simpler beginnings [15].

Furthermore, making eye contact is identified as the most effective method to activate mirror neurons, enhancing communication and interpersonal connections [4]. This underscores the importance of non-verbal cues in our interactions and their impact on emotional well-being. The act of smiling serves as a universal language, capable of transcending cultural barriers and opening doors to new relationships and experiences [14]. Through these interactions, mirror neurons not only facilitate a deeper understanding and connection with others but also play a crucial role in our emotional health and happiness.

Mirror Neurons and Depression

Depression, characterized by persistent sadness and a lack of interest, is a condition that's increasingly being studied in relation to the activity of mirror neurons [1]. Research suggests that these neurons, vital for social cognition and empathy, may function differently in individuals experiencing depression, potentially contributing to the social disconnect often observed in this condition [1].

  1. Dysfunctional Mirror Neuron Activity and Depression: Studies indicate a link between altered mirror neuron function and depression. A notable investigation involving 32 subjects revealed that individuals with higher depression levels exhibited significant desynchronization in the (\alpha) rhythm during motor hand movements and when exposed to negative emotional facial expressions [16]. This suggests that depression may amplify the mirror neuron system's (MNS) response to negative stimuli without affecting visual cortex and attention processes [16]. Furthermore, another study utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) found decreased activity in the mirror neuron system, particularly in areas like the inferior frontal gyrus and supplementary motor area, in depressed individuals. This reduced activity correlated with the severity of depressive symptoms, underscoring the potential impact of mirror neuron dysfunction on depression [17].

  2. Potential Therapeutic Implications: The findings from these studies not only deepen our understanding of depression but also pave the way for exploring new therapeutic approaches. The correlation between mirror neuron activity and depression severity suggests that interventions aimed at normalizing or enhancing mirror neuron function could offer new avenues for treatment [17]. Given the mirror neuron system's role in empathy and social cognition, therapies that target these areas might help mitigate some of the social cognition deficits observed in depression [1].

  3. Broader Implications for Psychological Disorders: Beyond depression, dysfunctional mirror neuron activity has been linked to a range of psychological disorders, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and social anxiety disorder (SAD) [19]. Autistic children, for instance, show reduced activity in brain regions associated with mirror neurons, with the severity of the condition inversely related to the activity level of the mirror-neuron system [18]. This highlights the critical role of mirror neurons not just in depression but in a spectrum of conditions affecting social interaction and emotional resonance [6][18].

These insights into the relationship between mirror neurons and depression not only enhance our understanding of this complex disorder but also offer hope for more targeted and effective treatments in the future. By continuing to explore the intricacies of the mirror neuron system, researchers are opening new pathways to improve mental health and well-being.

The Impact of Social Interaction on Mirror Neuron Function

The intricate dance of social interactions significantly influences the functionality of mirror neurons, underscoring their pivotal role in understanding actions, intentions, and fostering empathy. This section delves into how different modes of interaction, from face-to-face encounters to digital communications, impact these neurons.

  1. Modes of Interaction: Face-to-Face: The richest form of social interaction, face-to-face communication allows for the full engagement of mirror neurons. These neurons thrive on the non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language, enabling a deeper understanding and connection [15].

  • Digital Communication: In today's digital age, interactions through phone calls and emails still activate mirror neurons, albeit to a lesser extent compared to in-person encounters. The absence of visual cues in these modes makes it challenging for mirror neurons to fully mirror the actions and emotions of others [4].

  • Media Consumption: Interestingly, the power of movies and visual media in evoking strong emotional responses can be partly attributed to mirror neurons. They enable viewers to connect deeply with on-screen emotions, illustrating the broad influence of these neurons beyond direct social interactions [15].

  • Development and Regulation: Infants demonstrate the ability to regulate their imitation as young as 18 months, indicating that humans can adapt their behavior based on their surroundings. This adaptability suggests a sophisticated level of mirror neuron function that goes beyond mere imitation to include modulation based on context [15]. The concept of a regulated mirror system acting as a "blender" rather than a "complete mirror" or "sponge" is crucial. It allows individuals to understand and empathize with others' emotions without being overwhelmed by them, showcasing the nuanced role of mirror neurons in emotional processing [15].

  1. Theoretical Insights: Theory of Mind: This theory posits that humans have the ability to construct mental models of others' thoughts and intentions. Mirror neurons play a significant role in this process by enabling individuals to use their emotions to predict others' actions, essentially projecting their mental states onto others [10].

  • Recursive Embedding and Mental Time Travel: Recursion allows humans to conceive of their own minds and those of others, enabling mental "time travel." This ability to insert past experiences or imagined future scenarios into the present consciousness is pivotal for understanding complex social interactions and empathy [10].

By exploring the impact of social interaction on mirror neuron function, it becomes evident that these neurons are fundamental to the fabric of human connection, empathy, and social cognition. Whether through direct interaction or mediated experiences, mirror neurons enable us to navigate the social world with an understanding and empathy that is uniquely human.

Therapeutic Approaches Involving Mirror Neurons

Exploring the therapeutic potential of interventions targeting mirror neuron activity presents an innovative approach to enhancing mental and physical health. Research indicates promising avenues for leveraging mirror neurons in therapeutic settings:

  1. Depression and Mirror Neurons: The call for future studies to delve into the therapeutic benefits of interventions targeting mirror neuron activity in individuals with depression highlights a potential pathway to mitigate the effects of this condition [17]. This approach suggests that enhancing or normalizing mirror neuron function could play a crucial role in improving emotional regulation and social cognition, offering new hope for those affected by depression.

  2. Rehabilitation Through MNS-Based Training: Stroke Rehabilitation:

  • Patients undergoing mirror neuron system (MNS) based training, incorporating action observation training (AOT), have shown significant improvements in upper extremity motor function and cognitive function compared to control groups [20]. This method utilizes the power of observation and imitation to facilitate recovery, tapping into the mirror neuron's inherent capabilities.

  • Language Recovery in Aphasia: Similarly, MNS-based training has been applied to improve language function in aphasic patients. Hand action observation training, a component of this therapeutic approach, effectively enhances various aspects of language function, demonstrating the versatility of mirror neuron interventions [21]. 3. Enhancing Social Cognition and Emotional Regulation: Therapeutic interventions focusing on mirror neuron activity, such as mirror neuron training, have shown promise in improving social cognition and emotional regulation among individuals with psychological disorders [19]. This approach underscores the potential of mirror neurons not just in physical rehabilitation but also in addressing complex cognitive and emotional challenges.

These insights into therapeutic approaches involving mirror neurons underscore their versatility and potential in treating a range of conditions, from physical impairments like stroke to complex psychological disorders. The ongoing research and application of mirror neuron-based therapies hold promise for more personalized and effective treatment strategies, harnessing the power of these unique neurons to foster recovery and enhance quality of life.

Future Directions in Understanding Mirror Neurons

The exploration of mirror neurons continues to reveal their profound impact on our psychological well-being and social interactions. As we venture into future research directions, several key areas emerge as pivotal for deepening our understanding and harnessing the therapeutic potential of mirror neurons:

  1. Neurological and Psychiatric Conditions: Depression: Ongoing research emphasizes the need to explore mirror neurons' role in depression, suggesting that interventions targeting these neurons could offer new therapeutic benefits [1][17].

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: Individuals with autism may exhibit reduced mirror neuron function, potentially linked to symptoms like impaired motor or language skills. This area warrants further investigation to understand the broader implications for autism [2].

  • Psychological Well-Being: A comprehensive understanding of how mirror neurons influence psychological well-being is crucial. Future studies are called to develop more effective interventions for psychological disorders by leveraging insights into mirror neuron functionality [19].

  1. Developmental and Evolutionary Perspectives: Origin and Maturation: Research into the origin of mirror neurons and their role in the development of social-cognitive skills during infancy is essential. This includes examining how the maturation of the motor system supports these skills [7].

  • Epigenetic Events: Investigating how epigenetic events might stabilize sensorimotor mechanisms, including mirror neurons, throughout evolution, offers insights into their adaptive advantages and expression facilitation [7].

  1. Neurochemical and Molecular Bases: Understanding the neurochemical and molecular foundations of the mirror mechanism poses a challenging yet crucial research area. This knowledge could unlock new therapeutic avenues and deepen our grasp of social cognition [7].

Key Areas for Further Research:

  • Low-Level vs High-Level Processing: While mirror neurons aid in action discrimination or recognition, their involvement in higher-level processes like inferring intentions needs more evidence. Future research should clarify these roles [22][5].

  • Imitation and Speech Discrimination: The specific contributions of mirror neurons to imitation and speech discrimination, especially in noisy conditions, remain to be fully understood. This includes distinguishing the motor system's role, including premotor and primary motor cortex areas, in these processes [22].

  • Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication: Innovations in cognitive neuroscience and social psychology could open new realms of direct brain-to-brain communication. Developing methods to understand inter-brain interactions through magnetic fields presents an exciting frontier [23].

As we continue to unravel the complexities of mirror neurons, these research directions not only promise to enhance our understanding of human cognition and social interaction but also pave the way for innovative therapeutic strategies.

Final Thoughts

Throughout this exploration of mirror neurons, we've elucidated their profound influence on happiness, depression, social interaction, and therapeutic possibilities, thereby cementing their significance in our psychological and emotional well-being. The discovery of mirror neurons has not only advanced our grasp of empathy and social cognition but has also opened new vistas in understanding and treating psychological disorders such as depression and autism. By highlighting their role in mirroring emotions and facilitating social connections, we underscore the potential of these neural pathways in enhancing mental health and fostering empathetic societies.

Looking forward, the multifaceted implications of mirror neuron research beckon a deeper examination into their neurological and psychiatric dimensions. The promise they hold for developing innovative therapeutic interventions suggests a hopeful horizon for individuals grappling with psychological ailments. As we continue to navigate the complex interplay between neurology and psychology, the continued study of these remarkable neurons will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in unlocking new understandings of the human mind and heart, fostering a future where mental health is approached with the nuanced and empathetic interventions it demands.


1. How do mirror neurons influence our emotional experiences? Mirror neurons are crucial in our ability to interpret and empathize with others' emotions, as they help us process non-verbal cues like facial expressions and social interactions. They facilitate our understanding of others' feelings without the need for verbal communication.

2. Why are mirror neurons important for our wellbeing? Mirror neurons are believed to play a key role in how we understand others' actions, learn through imitation, and simulate the behaviors of people around us. This ability is essential for social learning and interaction, which are integral to our overall wellbeing.

3. What is the connection between mirror neurons and feelings of happiness in humans? Mirror neurons are activated not only when we personally experience emotions but also when we observe others experiencing them. This means that when we see someone happy, our mirror neurons fire up, allowing us to share in their happiness and feel empathy. The same goes for other emotions like sadness, fear, and anger.

4. What exactly are mirror neurons, and what is their function? Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that responds both when we perform a particular action and when we see someone else performing the same or a similar action. They are thought to be involved in learning through observation, understanding the intentions of others, and social interactions.

5. How can hypnotherapy help with the health and functionality of mirror neurons?

Hypnotherapy can potentially have a positive impact on the health and functionality of mirror neurons through its ability to influence brain activity and cognitive processes. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that fires both when an individual performs an action and when they observe someone else performing the same action. These neurons are thought to play a role in empathy, social learning, and understanding the intentions of others.

Hypnotherapy may impact mirror neuron functionality in the following ways:

  1. Enhancing Empathy: By guiding individuals into a state of deep relaxation and heightened focus, hypnotherapy may help individuals become more attuned to the emotions and experiences of others, potentially strengthening their empathic responses. This could influence the firing and responsiveness of mirror neurons associated with empathy.

  2. Behavioral Modeling: During hypnotherapy sessions, individuals may visualize and internalize positive behaviors and responses, which could potentially activate mirror neurons associated with observational learning and behavioral modeling.

  3. Reducing Stress and Anxiety: Hypnotherapy can help reduce stress and anxiety, which are known to impact brain function. By reducing these negative emotional states, hypnotherapy may support an environment conducive to healthy mirror neuron activity.

  4. Pain Management: Hypnotherapy has been used as a complementary therapy in pain management. By alleviating pain, individuals may experience improved cognitive function and reduced stress, potentially supporting healthier mirror neuron activity.

It's important to note there is potential for hypnotherapy to positively influence mirror neuron firing. Additionally, the biopsychosocial model, which considers the biological, psychological, and social factors influencing health and illness, can be applied to understand how hypnotherapy may impact the integrated functioning of mirror neurons within the context of an individual's overall health and well-being.


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