How is it that we cry when someone else is hurting? Or experience fear when we watch actors on a movie screen facing deranged killers? Most of us are fully aware that we are not feeling pain or facing death, yet our bodies react with tears and terror.
Science suggests that the source of our empathetic reactions is a collection of special brain cells called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons speak to us from the perspective of the Other, causing our brains to react as if we were, indeed, suffering the same fate as the actors on screen or the people around us. Says Marco Iacoboni in his new book Mirroring People,
“These [mirror neurons] are the tiny miracles that get us through the day. They are at the heart of how we navigate through our lives. They bind us with each other, mentally and emotionally.”
The ability to empathize, to put ourselves in another’s place, is essential to the human ability to bond and thereby create symbiotic relationships that ensure survival of our species. So important are these mirroring neurons, in fact, that they are operating almost as soon as we are born. Psychologist Andrew Meltzoff’s revolutionary experiments in the 1970s showed that babies are capable of imitating certain manual and facial gestures within the first hour of life. This discovery led to a theory that we learn by imitating, rather than the other way around as had been previously believed.
Further supporting Meltzoff’s theory is the behavior noted among the congenitally blind, who “gesture when they talk, even though they have never seen other people gesturing.” Since they are not imitating, what is the source of this gesturing? David McNeil, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago , believes that gestures are an integral part of language, as much as any sound we may use to communicate.
Don’t be misled by all this talk of neurons and brains into thinking that Mirroring People is full of dry facts. Background is needed, of course, to explain how we’ve gotten from point A to point B, but every page in this captivating book contains information that will amaze, stun, or entertain. In a chapter entitled ‘The Jennifer Aniston Cell,’ Iacoboni explains the theory that a single neuron may be attached to a particular object or person. In an experiment led by Itzhak Fried, subjects were shown a large number of pictures of various celebrities, buildings, and animals. The research team was as surprised as anyone when the evidence showed that one particular brain cell responded only to pictures of Jennifer Aniston. “Julia Roberts triggered no response in the Jennifer Aniston cell. Amazingly, neither did a picture of Jennifer and Brad Pitt.”
While tidbits such as that may be fun for the star-struck among us, these discoveries have wide-reaching and practical implications for the medical field. Children with autism, for instance, appear to lack the imitative neuron response that aids in observation and imitation. Understanding this, it seems likely that a therapy for autistic patients could be developed from a perspective of mirroring.
Mirroring People strikes a surprisingly friendly tone for what is, essentially, a scientific exploration of still-unfolding research. The foundations are well-presented with documentation, but Iacoboni manages to relay the vital information in an English that we liberal arts majors can understand. Anecdotes, such as those mentioned above, are ample and compelling. Whether taken up with a particular goal in mind or just for a dip into a new field of study, this book will provide a wealth of thought-provoking possibilities for readers.