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Messi’s magic and mirror neurons

On 18th December 2022, after a tense final match that went topsy turvy like a giant see-saw, Argentina won the world and the world cup. Everybody heaved a sigh of relief to see Messi realize his dream of winning a FIFA World Cup title. That Messi wanted this was an open secret, and the world collectively rallied around Messi’s dream rooting for his team to win. Paulo Coehlo has famously said, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Nothing could be a better example of this than what transpired on the night of the FIFA World Cup final.

What is this phenomenon when we feel happy about another person’s success? This ability to identify with another person’s emotion and mental state is called empathy and theory of mind, which form a part of a brain function called social cognition. The ability to empathize with another person’s emotion is what makes us ‘human.

 

Scientists have long been intrigued by this phenomenon and tried to understand its science. We now know that a set of neurons in the brain called ‘mirror neurons’ drives empathy. Passively watching someone else’s actions fires mirror neurons in the frontal area of our brain. This firing helps us form our theory about the intentions behind the other person’s actions. We feel a similar emotional connection when we infer intent and determination from the observed actions.

 

These brain functions are now known to be disturbed in certain neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism and schizophrenia. An essential part of treatment in people with these conditions is also to train them to develop the skills for making correct inferences about others’ actions. Newer brain stimulation techniques (rtms) modulate these mirror neurons and improve their functions. The hormone oxytocin may also modulate these neurons.

Messi’s actions on the field conveyed to the world his hunger and determination for success, which resonated with everybody watching him. Seeing another’s dreams being fulfilled and identifying with it instills one with hope. A world reeling with the pandemic, war, and economic recession needs more empathy and more of such Messi magic.

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