You see someone take a drink, and you get thirsty too. A colleague yawns and your mouth flies open, even though you aren’t the least bit sleepy. Ever wonder why this happens? Because of circuits of neurons, called mirror neurons, in the prefrontal cortex of your brain, we subconsciously map out and follow the minds of others.
In his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Dan Siegel tells of an experiment in the 1990’s in which neuroscientists implanted electrodes in a monkey’s brain cortex. Rather predictably, when the monkey ate a peanut, corresponding electrodes fired in his brain. Ho hum. No big deal. However, when the monkey simply watched a researcher eat a peanut, the same neurons fired. Big deal! This discovery of what came to be called the mirror neuron system was HUGE! The same system has been identified in humans.
Subsequent findings showed that the mirror neuron system has been shown to respond only to acts of intention which mean that, if I raise my hand and wave it in around the air randomly, your mirror neurons don’t respond. However, if I raise my hand with a cup in it, your mirror neurons will predict, from experience that I’m going to drink from the cup and get you ready to drink as well. How weird and wonderful is that?
Our brains create internal maps from birth with these mirror neurons, and their activation occurs automatically and unconsciously. This mirroring includes all the senses: sound, touch, smell, and vision.
We first learn to mirror our caregivers as babies. You smile at a baby, they smile back. You coo, the baby makes a sound. You make a silly face and their face lights up if you are lucky. If you are unlucky, they start to wail. This is one reason why responsive, interactive caregivers are so important for infants, and this mirror neuron system is considered to be the basis for empathy.
By adulthood, our mirror circuits are well established in most people. You approach a group of people laughing and smiling, and you start to chuckle to yourself before you even know what they are talking about. You and your best friend are drowning their bad breakup over a few glasses of wine, and as you do, you start to feel a heaviness in your chest and a lump in your throat. Scientists call this phenomenon, made possible by mirror neurons, emotional contagion. Humans can even come to resonate physiologically with others. Our respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate can rise and fall in sync with someone’s sensed internal emotional state.
Amazingly, magicians capitalize on the mirror neuron system to do many of their illusions. Because of mirror neurons, you’ll tend to focus on whatever the magician pays attention to even if it’s not conscious. In this way, a magician really directs your focus utilizing this system so they can perform their slight of hand. See the really cool video below.
Our awareness of another person’s state of mind depends on how well we know ourselves. We feel other peoples feelings by feeling our own and interpret others’ feelings as we are able to recognize and make sense of our own. If you do not allow yourself to feel and sense your own internal state, you’re not going to be able to read others. When you allow yourself to experience and identify your own emotions, you open the pathway for resonating with others.
Becoming open to knowing your own body – the feelings in your heart, the sensations in your belly, the rhythm of your breath – is a powerful source of wisdom and information to navigate successfully in the world. We cannot begin to know or understand others until we first begin this process with ourselves. This neural capability connects us to ourselves, with others, and allows for some cool magic tricks!
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