What do mirror neurons teach about us about our empathy? Throughout our brains, says neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, we have a type of brain cell that “mirrors” what we perceive from others. This recent discovery may be the biological basis of empathy — and a key to understanding the social brain.

neuroscience of empathy

This week, leading neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni visited with Six Seconds’ Master Class in Pajaro Dunes, California, for an oceanside chat on mirror neurons and their relationship to empathy and learning.  A few of us collected some of the takeaways:

What are Mirror Neurons?

Mirror neurons are “smart cells” in our brains that allow us to understand others’ actions, intentions, and feelings. The mirror neurons are in many areas of our brains, and they fire when we perform an action such as grasping an apple, and similarly we see others doing it. 

As it turns out, our mirror neurons fire when we experience an emotion and similarly when we see others experiencing an emotion, such as happiness, fear, anger, or sadness. When we see someone being sad, for example, our mirror neurons fire and that allows us to experience the same sadness and to feel empathy.  We don’t need to “think” about the other person being sad, we actually experience it firsthand. 

The reaction of mirror neurons allows us to socialize and communicate with others as we read their facial expressions. There is also an important ability to dampen this reaction, and there are several centers in our brains that act as “brakes” to keep us from becoming too caught up in others’ experiences. This process can have profound implications for our relationships.

Interestingly, human mirror neuron networks are also stimulated in response to actions which are apparently meaningless, indicating a tendency to spontaneously model any and all movements by others (Giacomo Rizzolatti, Fogassi, & Gallese, 2001).


The Chameleon Effect

Professor Iacoboni explained that mirror neurons are the reason for the “chameleon effect” which is the brain-to-brain imitation of postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions.  It’s what causes adults to smile when they see a baby smiling.  He also said that people who are more empathetic exhibit the chameleon effect to a greater extent that other people do.  This is an automatic “matching” that causes humans to connect – even if they’re not aware of the connection.

neuoscience of social interaction starts with mirror neurons

Broken Mirror Neurons and Autism

Iacoboni mentioned that children on the Autism Spectrum may struggle with social interaction because their mirror neuron systems are not functioning properly.  The discovery of mirror neuron deficiencies in people with autism opens up new approaches to diagnosing and treating the disorder.

Neuroscience of Role Modeling

Inspired by Professor Iacoboni’s keynote presentation, we discussed the link between role modeling and the neuroscience of mirror neurons.  Modeling occurs because we can consciously and unconsciously observe someone and learn from them.  We can intentionally improve our abilities by paying attention to someone who is skilled in a particular area.  Iacoboni said that one of the first elements of learning is observing others, and we automatically begin to learn through this process.  

We can intensify the learning by focusing on the role model and imagining ourselves doing what they do.  This is why we are committed to modeling excellence in emotional intelligence!  So if we are not achieving our desired results, we should “hang out” with people who are strong in these skills.

This seems to be true for emotions as well.  Through mirror neurons, emotions are contagious — so if we want to be more joyful (for example), a powerful action is to spend time with people who are full of joy.

Leadership Brains

The power of mirror neurons is another compelling reason that leaders need to take responsibility for their own actions and choices.  People are literally mirroring the leader’s actions — and the leader’s emotions. Simply showing up with more ideal behavior and an intentional emotional state is an important part of imparting these qualities to others.   Since mirror neurons are “always on” leaders have a huge responsibility to monitor and manage themselves as role models.

The Neuroscience of Empathy

Iacoboni repeatedly reminded us that we are, literally, wired to connect.  Humans are social, and empathy is a fundamental component of the human condition.  In the new Afterword to his fascinating book, Mirroring People, Professor Iacoboni points to the importance of this groundbreaking research.  Mirror neurons “help us to be empathic and fundamentally attuned to other people.  This is perhaps the most important finding of all, and it is a beautiful one.”

To hear more about these concepts, listen to this dialogue between  Professor Iacoboni and the Dalai Lama during  “Happiness and its Causes” conference.

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