Mental Mirrors

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

It should come as no great surprise, then, but serves as important proof, that at least six different laboratories using a variety of techniques for studying the human brain have recently confirmed deficits in mirror neuron areas and their interactions with the limbic system in individuals with autism.

Our growing knowledge of the powerful neurobiological mechanisms underlying human sociality provides an invaluable resource not only for understanding and helping children with social deficits, but also for helping all of us learn how to increase empathy in our lives and in the world. My hope is that a more explicit understanding of our empathic nature will become a factor in the deliberate, reflective discourse that shapes society. For instance, our knowledge of the basis of human sociality can help us open ourselves to other cultures without losing touch with our own.

People often say that they are moved to sadness when they watch a tearjerker film; they are moved to joy when their child hits a home run or performs in a recital. In a literal sense, they are indeed “moved.” Their mirror neurons are subtly activating the matching muscles in their faces and bodies. There is something like physical contact, like a beautifully synchronized partner dance, when we orchestrate motions and emotions in our minds while watching someone else.

People seem to have the intuition that “being moved” is the basis of empathy, and thus of morality. We have evolved to connect deeply with other human beings. Our new awareness of how literally this is true can and should bring us even closer to one another.

mental mirrors
This article was adapted from Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others, by Marco Iacoboni, © 2008. Click here for ordering information.