Is the Putative Mirror Neuron System Associated with Empathy? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Neuropsychol Rev. 2021 Mar;31(1):14-57. doi: 10.1007/s11065-020-09452-6. Epub 2020 Sep 2.


Theoretical perspectives suggest that the mirror neuron system (MNS) is an important neurobiological contributor to empathy, yet empirical support is mixed. Here, we adopt a summary model for empathy, consisting of motor, emotional, and cognitive components of empathy. This review provides an overview of existing empirical studies investigating the relationship between putative MNS activity and empathy in healthy populations. 52 studies were identified that investigated the association between the MNS and at least one domain of empathy, representing data from 1044 participants. Our results suggest that emotional and cognitive empathy are moderately correlated with MNS activity, however, these domains were mixed and varied across techniques used to acquire MNS activity (TMS, EEG, and fMRI). Few studies investigated motor empathy, and of those, no significant relationships were revealed. Overall, results provide preliminary evidence for a relationship between MNS activity and empathy. However, our findings highlight methodological variability in study design as an important factor in understanding this relationship. We discuss limitations regarding these methodological variations and important implications for clinical and community translations, as well as suggestions for future research.

Keywords: Empathy; Meta-analysis; Mirror neurons; Simulation; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Mirror Neurons*