Mirror Neurons & Empathetic Disgust


The concept of tactile empathy and its ties to disgust are explained in depth by Naomi Rokotnitz (2008) in her article “Too far gone in disgust”: Mirror Neurons and the Manipulation of Embodied Responses in The Libertine. Rokotnitz’s analysis of the ways in which the audience is physically moved to disgust in the play and movie The Libertine is embedded in contemporary cognitive neurological research that argues that experiential understanding is predicated on the activation of the mirror neurons system.

Mirror neurons are predicated on actions between a biological agent and an object, simply seeing a cup will not trigger mirror neurons, but seeing someone reach for a cup or interact with one will. Random gestures fail to trigger mirror neurons, but intentional actions, even when the object, say the cup, is hidden from view, will trigger mirror neurons. Mirror Neurons are activated when a meaningful activity is perceived in person, in video, even in paintings, and the same part of the brain that activates when actually doing the activity lights up during an FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Image) upon just seeing the activity. Mirror Neurons have supposedly two functions; they allow us to understand the actions of others and explain our ability to learn through imitation. Most of the research into mirror neurons has been done with primates, but there is evidence to suggest that mirror neurons exist similarly in humans.

The study of mirror neurons has drawn attention in the arts through a link to empathy, as empathy at its core allows identification with other individuals and groups. Empathy is predicated on understanding actions. As mirror neurons allow us to perceive with the motor system, or understand not through an analysis but through a sympathetic reaction in the pre-motor cortex of the brain, we experience an “embodied simulation” (Gallese, 2006) that “allows our body to resonate along with the bodies of others”.

This means that we share a bodily knowledge with those moving around us, which relates to kinesthetic empathy, or the sensation that we are somehow participating when we watch movement. Our bodies, at least in part through mirror neurons, allow us to respond physically to art. This has been discussed at length in the performing arts (see Watching Dance), but is applicable to images, as well. For example, seeing Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, we are not simply intellectually responding to the idea of a sad figure, or even emotionally to both the figure and the color schema, but are bodies are sharing in what it feels like to sit in such a deject and hopeless state.


The Old Guitarist (1903).

The cleverness of Rokotnitz’s work is to take these ideas, which have mostly been applied to pleasant or athletic images, and applies them to disgust. It has been well established that disgust impacts the body more directly than some other emotions, specifically implicating the digestive system. Tactile empathy, or our brains ability to transform visual input that deals with both motion and touch into a sympathetic neural motor response in our own bodies means that to see someone interacting with disgust is to feel what that person is feeling. While little work has been done on the specific of tactile empathy in relationship to disgust, what has been suggested, is that this explains the knee-jerk visceral reaction to disgusting images. This seems to be a generative field in that empathy could also explain our prolonged engagement with disgusting things that should cause us to flee, as we pause in an embodied simulation of what it means to feel sickened or reviled.

Johnny Depp as the Earl of  Rochester, John Wilmot, in The Libertine (2004).

Johnny Depp as the Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, in The Libertine (2004).

Gallese, V. (2006, March 24). Lecture at the Forum on Art and the New Biology of Mind. Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University, New York, NY. Available as an online video at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/media/06/421_neuroBioArts/vittorioGallese.ram

See RSA Animate: The Empathetic Civilization 

Suggested Readings:

Rokotnitz, N. (2008). “Too far gone in disgust”: Mirror neurons and the manipulation of

embodied responses in The Libertine. Configurations, 16(3), 399-426.

Rizzolatti, G. & Craighero, L. (2004). The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of

            Neurosceince, 27, 169-192.

Jeffers, C. (2009). On empathy: The mirror neuron system and art education.

International Journal of Education & the Arts, 10(15), 1-17.

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