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Porn, Coke commercials and Nicholas Spark’s movies all play on the mirror neurons in your brain to emotionally manipulate you.  This sounds like a conspiracy theory…but stay with me.

When you focus on someone’s movements, emotions and actions, your brain responds in around 10% the same way, as if you are actually participating in those movements, emotions and actions.

A neuron is a nerve cell, and all the neurons in your brain transmit information to each other, like tiny telephone lines. The neurons in your own body have the ability to “mirror” other people’s emotions and actions. This is why you might not be able to watch horror films or surgeries on TV without experiencing an emotional response.

Everyday, mirroring neurons allow us to feel empathy and compassion for one another. They also enable us to learn new skills by imitation and rehearsing, or even to know another person’s intentions and motives. When you watch someone else experience an emotion, you will feel that emotion as well—hello, sappy Super Bowl commercials.

A discovery by accident…

In 1992, researchers attached electrodes to monkey’s heads, on the motor area of their brain (the area that lights up when the body makes movements). Not only did the monkey’s neurons activate when it reached out to pick up a piece of food, but even when the researchers made a similar movement, the monkey’s motor area of their brain lit up.  

Later, that same team published a paper showing the monkey’s mirror neurons responded to the researchers’ mouth actions and facial expressions.

Further studies confirmed that around 10% of neurons in certain areas of a monkey’s brain had mirror abilities. Later these studies were expanded to humans, and they found the same ability in our brains. A recent study summarizing the data of 125 MRI scans on human found that there were many areas of the brain with this capacity, not just motor areas (Molenberghs, 2012).

Photographs taken of a study showing 2-3 week old infants imitating tongue protrusion, mouth opening and lip protrusion (Meltzoff, 1977)

Photographs taken of a study showing 2-3 week old infants imitating tongue protrusion, mouth opening and lip protrusion… curious how infants do it? (Meltzoff, 1977)

When you observe someone being touched, a similar area in your brain (the secondary somatosensory cortex) activates in a similar way as the person being touched (Keysers, 2004).

Similar brain circuits fire in both doing an action and hearing it, like those Coke commercials on the radio where you hear the pop top and the fizz, and you want to pull over for an icy cold beverage. This same study showed that people with higher scores on perspective taking (the ability to see someone from someone else’s point of view), had stronger activation of mirror areas (Gazzola, 2006).   

When we watch someone grieve at a funeral, ever wonder why we feel their
sadness?  When you feel emotion, you experience the emotion in your brain, like they are to a lesser extent. (Gaag, 2007)

We begin mirroring our caretakers on the first day we are born, and our brain and response systems become more complex and nuanced as we grow. The Still Face Experiment perfectly demonstrates the power of understanding mirroring neurons and giving and receiving empathy.

The mirror neuron system is involved with:

      • Understanding another’s actions and intentions
      • Capacity for empathy
      • Learning new skills by imitation and rehearsing

My first month as a psychiatric medical student I became depressed. I had not studied mirror neurons yet, so I did not understand that my body was responding to their depression. Once I studied it, I realized I could tune in to your own mirror neurons and you may be able to understand what others are feeling a little better.

How to hone your mirror neurons

      1. Consciously make note of how you feel before a conversation; this is your baseline.  
      1. Notice what you feel after fully concentrating on someone for a few minutes.  Do you feel any new emotions? Do any strange thoughts enter your mind?   
      1. Get feedback from the other person. If you feel some sadness, you might want to ask, “I am wondering if you feel sad.” If you have tension develop in your neck, ask, “Have you been feeling stress lately.” Feedback will help you know if you are actually picking up someone else’s experience. If you have accurately tuned in, you will show them you are tuning in on a deeper level.  Another way to get feedback is from their facial expressions.  Check out the Emotion Connection app. It’s a tool to help you understand what people are thinking and feeling through reading their facial expressions. If you practice and apply what you learn, you will be able to understand and maximize your mirror neurons for deeper empathy towards people.

Our ultimate goal is to be able to connect to others on a healthy, deep emotional level. Connectedness comes from someone feeling that you understand them on deeper levels, so use those mirror neurons to understand what is happening in your environment and with those that you love.

Gazzola, Valeria, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, and Christian Keysers. “Empathy and the somatotopic auditory mirror system in humans.” Current biology 16.18 (2006): 1824-1829.

Keysers, Christian, et al. “A touching sight: SII/PV activation during the observation and experience of touch.” Neuron 42.2 (2004): 335-346.

Meltzoff, Andrew N., and M. Keith Moore. “Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates.” Science 198.4312 (1977): 75-78.

Molenberghs, Pascal, Ross Cunnington, and Jason B. Mattingley. “Brain regions with mirror properties: a meta-analysis of 125 human fMRI studies.”Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 36.1 (2012): 341-349.

Van der Gaag, Christiaan, Ruud B. Minderaa, and Christian Keysers. “Facial expressions: what the mirror neuron system can and cannot tell us.” Social Neuroscience 2.3-4 (2007): 179-222.