Have you ever wondered how watching a movie can get you so emotionally immersed in the lives of imaginary characters? Or why watching someone else yawn makes you yawn? (To experience this firsthand, look at images of yawning).
In 1992, researchers in Italy discovered networks in the brain – so-called mirror neurons - that facilitate both of these processes. Using brain scans in real time, they observed that a monkey's brain responds similarly whether it is performing an action or watching someone else perform that action. They also learned that the perceived intention of an action determines the nature of the observer's response. They same appears to be true for humans.
Mirror neurons are located in associative areas of the frontal cortex where many networks converge and process information. They prompt deep imitation of the actions and responses of those around us.
Our inclination to copy others - initially called modeling by psychologists - stems from a mechanism that automatically replicates in our brains whatever we see around us. This process happens most with people we love or admire.
This chameleon-like quality is evident en masse in cultural trends like fashion, language, dancing, and even presentations of mental illness (e.g. anorexia or hysteria).
Sometime I catch myself using speech inflections borrowed 30 years ago from my college roommate. It makes me laugh and feel kind of funny at the same time. It's strange to notice how I have unintentionally adopted behaviors from those I loved so long ago. It makes me feel uncomfortably vulnerable to my surroundings and other people, which of course I am.
Understanding the pervasive influence of mirror neurons in your life helps you understand why you feel as you do. It offers a neural basis for the well-known phenomenon that we feel what others experience as if it were happening to us.