You cringe when a coworker gets a paper cut and cheer when a movie hero gets the girl. That’s because for an instant, it’s just as if these events are happening to you—and, in a way, they are.
Years ago, scientists studying specific nerve cells in macaque monkeys’ prefrontal cortexes found that the cells fired when the monkeys threw a ball or ate a banana.
But here’s the surprise: these same cells fired when the monkeys watched another monkey performing these acts. In other words, when Monkey #1 watched Monkey #2 toss a ball, the brain of the first monkey reacted just as if it had tossed the ball itself.
Scientists initially nicknamed these cells “monkey see, monkey do” neurons. Later they changed the name to mirror neurons, because these cells allow monkeys to mirror another being’s actions in their own minds.