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Mirror Neurons and Furry Friendships

Published: 08/15/2009 by Michelle Friese, M.Ed. & Desiree Arsenault, B.Sc.

» Education & Learning Support

“Be polite, don’t interrupt and put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” I like to call these kindergarten tactics.  These are simple ideas that are presented and engrained into our memory as children to build character and compassion.

Empathy is a very important skill to learn.  To function well with other people we need to understand where they are coming from so as not to misread their intentions.  Empathy is a cognitive and emotional skill.  Cognitively we read body language and facial cues to determine how a person is feeling.  Emotionally we create an ability to feel or to experience another person’s or animal’s feelings and circumstances.

An empathetic reaction is triggered by neurons in our brain called mirror neurons.  Just like we have neurons to activate muscle movement, mirror neurons fire both when a person is in action and when he or she observes someone else engaged in the same action.  The region where these cells function is known as the limbic system which is located in the brain’s emotional region. 

Because mirror neurons recreate experiences of others within ourselves and because they allow us to “put ourselves in the shoes of another” that makes them the neural basis of empathy.

Humane educators build on a child’s natural affinity for animals to teach empathy; an essential life skill that is key to social and academic success. 

Researchers have found Children often experience a natural affinity for animals that begins in infancy.1  Beginning at birth, we surround children with animal presences. Their clothing is decorated with animals.  We give them stuffed animals to cuddle and name.  Plastic animals accompany them in their baths.  Most children learn their numbers by counting animals and learn to read from pages filled with pictures of animals.  Of course, real animals also fill their lives: companions at home, creatures encountered in nature, and those introduced to them in school and in the media.

Research demonstrates very tangible benefits to children who form bonds with animals.  In a study of 300 children, ages 3-18, researchers found that children considered pets as a source of learning, happiness, comfort, and unconditional love.2

In preschool children there were significant links between the strength of children’s companion animal bond and their empathy for other children.  Kids from 6-8 years learn that with pets you succeed by being patient, kind, and working hard. An example of this is teaching them a new trick. Kids who are 9-14 feel less lonely when they have a companion animal: In a research study with 4th graders they found an increased empathy towards humans.3  And for young people age 13-18 pets provide an increase in self-esteem and also companionship that is less complicated than human relationships.

There are many ways of incorporating empathy into our lives on a daily basis. One way is to improve emotional self awareness. Making students aware of their emotions will help them identify and control them better. A suggestion is to create an “emotions wheel”.  Ask students to state their emotional feeling throughout the day.  Model this for them when you have a particular emotion.

Stay focused on similarities.  Researchers have found that empathy for others is enhanced if the teaching strategy focuses on similarities first and only later calls attention to differences.4  You can also select books and stories that feature people behaving in respectful, caring, and responsible ways toward animals.  Novel studies can include titles such as the Shiloh series and Charlotte’s web which can generate rich discussions and meaningful dialogue about how animals should be treated.

Present the idea of empathy. Tell children what it is, describe how it develops, and give examples. Explain why empathy is important. A great topic to discuss is the importance of human and animal rights.  Students can be asked why they think these laws are necessary and to imagine what the world would be like without them.

Role-Playing, which is the key feature of empathy building, promotes positive mental habits such as open-mindedness, unique approaches to problem solving, cognitive and personal flexibility, and persistent inquiring. Students can do character analysis, write predictions for upcoming chapters, and dramatize the point of view of one of the characters.

Encourage cooperation.  All skills, whether they are social, cognitive, or emotional, need to be learned.  Watch for situations where cooperation can spontaneously occur in daily activities, identify situations where teamwork is mandatory to achieve a goal (i.e. sports) or set up a special project where students have to work together (i.e. science fair) to achieve a particular goal.

Provide exposure to emotional situations. Expose students to situations in which they witness an animal or person in distress or need. Of course, it is important to be sure that the nature of the scene is suitable for the age of the child. Examples include: visit a wildlife rehabilitation center and learn about the various ways in which wild animals are injured or volunteer at a charitable organization (food bank, homeless shelter, senior’s home).

Remember, “I am a good person.” Children who think well of themselves are much more likely to respond empathetically in their ability to care and act responsibly.  A kindness club can create posters to hang around the school or community. Host a used toy or book sale and donate the proceeds.

Empathy skills learned early on can reap many benefits for the student, their family and society in general.  Violent and aggressive behaviors have been the focus of much scientific research.   One contributing factor to the behaviour of bullies and children who abuse animals is their lack of empathy.5

Children with poor social and emotional skills are at risk for developing problems in relationships throughout childhood and adolescence.  Problematic behavior becomes less malleable over time and there is also evidence that aggressive behavior often precedes more serious behavior, such as delinquency, school dropout, and substance abuse. 

By using empathy and putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, or paws, we teach our children compassion, respect and resiliency.  From this we hope to develop a better future for humans and animals. <>


  1. The Empathy Connection (2007) Published by: the Doris Day Animal Foundation.  Sourced from http://www.animalsandsociety.org
  2. Kidd, A. H. & Kidd, R. M. (1985). Psychological Reports, 57, 15-31.
  3. Ascione, F. R. & Weber, C. B. (1996). Children’s attitudes about the humane treatment of animals and empathy: One-year follow up of a school-based intervention. Anthrozoos, 9, 188-195
  4. Brehm, S. S., Fletcher, B. L,. & West, V. (1981). Effects of empathy instructions on first-graders’ liking of other people. Child Study Journal, 11, 1-15.
  5. Gullone, E., Thompson, K. 2003. Promotion of Empathy and Prosocial Behavior in children through humane education. Australian Psychologist, Vol. 38, number 3, 175-182


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