Mental Mirrors

Special cells in the brain mimic the actions and intentions of others, forming the basis of empathy and social connections.

In their final, most critical experiment, Chartrand and Bargh tested the hypothesis that the more you mimic others, the more you are concerned about other people’s feelings—that is, the more empathy you have. The setting was the same as in the first experiment, with the confederates either rubbing their faces or shaking their feet. The novel aspect, though, was that the participants also responded to a questionnaire that measured their empathic tendencies. Chartrand and Bargh found a strong correlation between the degree of imitative behavior displayed by a participant and his or her tendency to empathize. The more the subject imitated the face rubbing or the foot shaking, the more empathic an individual that subject was. These results suggest that it is in large part through mimicry that we are able to feel what other people feel, and so to respond compassionately to their emotional states.

The well-designed studies of Chartrand and Bargh are compelling, and join a host of others. For example, couples tend to have a “higher facial similarity” (they look more alike) after a quarter century of married life than at the time of their marriage. Moreover, the happier the marriage, the higher the couple’s facial similarity. That’s no surprise, really. Loving, sharing, and living together makes a spouse somewhat like a second self. Such examples point to the vital role of mirror neurons in our interactions with others.

Because "mirroring" is essential for empathy and social connection, impairment of the capacity to mirror can have profoundly negative consequences. In the late 1980s, psychiatrist and developmental psychologist R. Peter Hobson at University College, London, made a series of observations about children with autism that are very suggestive in the light of the later discovery of mirror neurons. Hobson was convinced that the main deficit in autism was emotional, not cognitive, and that it lay in the children’s inability to “identify” with the emotions of others. To explore this hunch, Hobson devised a series of experiments that tested the ability of children with and without autism to notice facial expressions and to imitate behaviors associated with emotions—two skills vital to social communication and bonding that we now think may depend on normally functioning mirror neurons.

With his colleague S. Jane Weeks, a psychologist then at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, Hobson showed children with and without autism pictures of women or men, wearing either woolen caps or floppy hats, and making either happy or gloomy faces. The children were asked to sort the pictures based on how they differed. Obviously, the children could have chosen to sort by gender, hat, or facial expression. The first time, both the non-autistic children and those with autism used gender to sort the pictures. Weeks and Hobson then asked them to sort the pictures again, this time without regard to gender. Here came the difference: non-autistic children picked facial emotion as the sorting factor, whereas children with autism picked the hat. Such results encouraged Hobson in his conviction that the problem for children with autism is the missing emotional connection.

To test whether imitation deficits in children with autism are linked to their inability to resonate emotionally with other people, Hobson and his colleague Anthony Lee of the Tavistock Clinic, London, came up with an experiment in which children could imitate both what people did to accomplish a goal and the “style” with which they conducted themselves. Initially the children—divided into one group with autism and another without—were not even told to imitate Lee, who simply said, “Watch this.” Then he performed simple actions with a number of objects. For example, he strummed a stick along a pipe rack, making a graceful and gentle strumming action for half of each group, and a harsh strumming for the other half of each group. After a break, the children were allowed to use the stick and pipe. What did they do? All the children strummed the stick along the pipe rack, but only the non-autistic children imitated the harsh or gentle style that Lee had adopted in front of them.

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