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Neurons of Compassion

Have we found the basis for empathy and altruism? Like most great scientific breakthroughs, the discovery of the human mirror neuron system (MNS) was a complete accident. What may end up being the most important neuroscientific discovery of the twenty-first century was uncovered serendipitously because of an ice cream cone. In 1995, scientists at the University of Parma in Italy were studying monkeys’ brains with electrodes — small wires that could detect if neurons in the outer layers were giving off electrical signals. As the monkeys ate peanuts, the cells would fire in sequences, showing activity of the mouth and tongue (chewing and tasting), the hand and arms (reaching), and the fingers (cracking the shell and handling the food). One afternoon, the experiments were running late and the research technician realized that he might miss lunch, so he left the monkey hooked up to the electrode recorders and headed to his favorite bistro. Pressed for time at the end of the meal, he grabbed a gelato and took it with him back to the lab. While he rechecked the instruments, getting ready for the after …

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