Thinking with others?

A unifying view of the basis of social cognition
Vittorio Gallese1, Christian Keysers1,2 and Giacomo Rizzolatti1,Corresponding author: Giacomo Rizzolatti (
Department of Neuroscience, Section of Physiology, University of Parma, Italy
BCN Neuroimaging Center, University of Groningen, Antonius Deusinglaan 2, Groningen, The Netherlands

In this article we provide a unifying neural hypothesis on how individuals understand the actions and emotions of others. Our main claim is that the fundamental mechanism at the basis of the experiential understanding of others’ actions is the activation of the mirror neuron system. A similar mechanism, but involving the activation of viscero-motor centers, underlies the experiential understanding of the emotions of others. Humans are an exquisitely social species. Our survival and success depends crucially on our ability to thrive in c o m p l e x s o c i al s i t u a t io n s . O n e o f th e m o s t s t r i k in g features of our experience of others is its intuitive nature. This implicit grasp of what other people do or feel will be the focus of our review. We will posit that, in our brain, there are neural mechanisms (mirror mechanisms) that allow us to directly understand the meaning of the actions and emotions of others by internally replicating (‘simulating’) them without any explicit reflective mediation. Conceptual reasoning is not necessary for this understanding. As human beings, of course, we are able to reason about others and to use this capacity to understand other people’s minds at the conceptual, declarative level. Here we will argue, however, that the fundamental mechanism that allows us a direct experiential grasp of the mind of others is not conceptual reasoning but direct simulation of the observed events through the mirror mechanism. The novelty of our approach consists in providing for the first time a neurophysiological account of the experiential dimension of both action and emotion understanding.

What makes social interactions so different from our perception of the inanimate world is that we witness the actions and emotions of others, but we also carry out similar actions and we experience similar emotions. There is something shared between our first- and third-person experience of these phenomena: the observer and the observed are both individuals endowed with a similar brain–body system. A crucial element of social cognition is the brain’s capacity to directly link the first- and third- person experiences of these phenomena (i.e. link ‘I do and I feel’ with ‘he does and he feels’). We will define this mechanism ‘simulation’.

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Communications and Media Senior Lecturer at SAE Byron Bay Australia

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