Mirror Neurons…and Empathy

Why do we yawn after seeing someone else do so?  Why do babies smile when someone smiles at them–or any of us, for that matter?  Why is laughter ‘infectious’?  Why does a baby copy the actions, and the language, of its caregivers?  And how is it that we can feel another’s pain?  Or…that some of us lack “emotional intelligence”, exhibited to the extreme in those with certain forms of autism, and cannot recognize the emotions of another?

One of the most exciting recent discoveries in neuroscience is that of “mirror neurons”.  Discovered in primates and until now only hypothesized in humans, they are structures in the brain which activate not only upon one’s own action but on that of another as well.  Though not yet linked to cognitive function, scientists are researching the potential connection to imitation and language acquisition — and it’s further supposed that there is a correlation with emotional resonance, or empathy, as well.

In any social group, cohesion is imperative to the group’s function, and is developed in a number of ways: by sharing tasks for the advancement of the group, maintaining a common language and customs, trading goods and skills, group efforts at rearing the offspring, and general social connectedness.  The latter is most recognized in the form of empathy, when members of the group can recognize another’s feelings.  We see this in most if not all species, even plants which recognize one another’s distress signals, for example.  Mothers and their infants, in many species, mirror one another’s gestures and expressions naturally.  This mirroring ability is even seen between species…as any dog owner knows.

Empathy has been shown repeatedly to be the single most powerful element in the bond between therapist and client, and this therapeutic relationship the most important factor in whether a client improves as a result of treatment — stronger than the specific techniques used by the therapist, and equal in strength to the resources that the client has within him- or herself.  Therapists have long used a “mirroring” technique in which they are matching, subtly and with the greatest respect, the body positioning, breathing pattern, vocal tones and possibly even the emotional affect of the client in order to strengthen this bond, to resonate as fully as possible with the person who has come to them for help.

It would seem that we are hard-wired to connect with one another well beyond our conscious efforts.  While the research into the cognitive applications of this structure has only just begun, its implications for emotional resonance — for our ability to not only understand the emotions of another, but to actually experience them — are evident.  To take this one step further, greater understanding of this inherent and largely unconscious ability could go a long way toward building relationships based on similarities, rather than wars based on difference.

Just a thought.

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