Hard-wired to Connect: Mirror Neurons and Empathy
Many people have suspected for a long time that we human beings are designed to be able to experience things happening for another person: in good times or in bad. So we see a stranger clumsily bump their head on a low-hanging branch at the park, and we flinch, too. We hear that a friend has gotten some good news about a medical diagnosis, and we are genuinely happier. Yet although we have suspected this – and even have words, such as empathy and clairsentience, to describe it – it was not until 1992 that science could demonstrate how it happens, and even then it was a serendipitous discovery.
Italian researcher Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team at Parma University in Italy had implanted electrodes in the brains of several macaque monkeys to study the animals’ brain activity during different motor actions, including the clutching of food. One day while the monkeys were still wired up, a researcher reached for his own food and noticed that as he did so, the neurons begin to fire in the monkeys’ premotor cortex the same area that showed activity when the animals made a similar hand movement (Perry, 2014; Wikipedia, 2014a). How could this be happening when the monkeys were sitting still and merely watching him?
During the two decades since then, this discovery of mirror neurons – a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement – has deeply changed the way we think about our brains and ourselves, particularly our social selves.
Mirror neurons connect us with feelings
Before Rizzolatti made his discovery, scientists thought that our brains use logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions. Now, however, we realise that we understand others not by thinking, but by feeling, because mirror neurons let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. So the saying, “Smile and the world smiles with you” has a basis in neuroscientific fact: smile, and your smile recipients’ brains will fire in the same way yours does when you smile, creating a sensation in their minds of the feeling associated with smiling. They don’t have to think about what you intend by smiling. They experience the meaning immediately and effortlessly. Mirror neurons, in general, fire in both monkeys and human beings when we see another person/primate experience life. They show us that our ability to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes”, is a very real and active part of our brain (of course, when we watch someone carry out an action, although our brain is activated, we need to stop our muscles from going through the actual motions. V. S. Ramachandran, one of the neuroscientists involved in the original discovery of mirror neurons, has suggested that there are other parts of our brain responsible for suppressing the action from being followed through with (Troon, 2013.)
How mirror neurons help counsellors
Mirror neurons also work their “magic” when we are engaged in counselling. As a therapist, you might model ways of responding to anxiety-provoking situations or to depressive thought patterns by teaching the client to monitor, to analyse and to reframe thoughts in a more balanced way. You can also discuss and model behavioural strategies such as breathing techniques or calming activities that might help clients to manage their anxiety or depression. And, just as importantly, you can model enthusiasm, hope, and a solution-focused approach to problems. The mere act of observing a counsellor approach problems in a variety of ways can activate the mirror neurons in your client with anxiety or depression (or a range of other problems).
When the brain-derived neurotrophin factor (BDNF) is able to repeatedly stimulate the dendrites, it up-regulates neurotransmitter receptors, strengthening the pathways in the brain: in this case, the ones leading to positive thoughts and emotions. This process can be likened to a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it becomes and the easier it is to use next time. The old pathways – the ones that are associated with anxious responses and negative thought spirals – can become weaker and less likely to become the “default” pathway over time (Troon, 2013).
Clients should pick a counsellor they like
Kandel (1998, in Troon, 2013) cites evidence to suggest that our mirror neurons are more likely to be activated if we have a connection to the person that is modelling the desired behaviour – that is, if the emotional centres of our brain are also involved. Neuroscience thus backs up the well-known statement that eighty percent of the efficacy of counselling depends upon the relationship between the counsellor and the client. Simply put, clients are more likely to activate their mirror neurons if they like their counsellor; they are more likely to engage with the enthusiasm and positivity of their counsellor and to be able to implement strategies that they are being taught.
So when as therapist we speak to a client and the client listens, we are not only making eye contact and voice contact, but the action of neural networks in our therapist brains is having an indirect and, it seems, long-lasting effect on the neural networks in the client’s brain; it is quite likely that the reverse is also true. Insofar as our words produce changes in our client’s mind, it is likely that these psychotherapeutic interventions produce changes in the client’s brain. From this perspective, the biological and socio-psychological approaches are joined (Kandel, 1998, in Troon, 2013).
The neurological basis for social interactions
Said another way, mirror neuron research is helping scientists reinterpret the neurological underpinning of social interactions. While each of us is a unique individual, we are so within the context of a neurobiologically interconnected species. We are hardwired with connective mechanisms, as shown externally by language, gesture, and facial expression, among other things (Perry, 2014; Hill, n.d.). We use facial expression to enhance the capacity of others to understand and appreciate our mental state: our mood, intention, and overall wellbeing. We use language and gesture, both requiring attention and response from others, to come into relationship with them. These aspects of us – language, gesture, and facial expression – convey mental states across space and time and from brain to brain.
Mindsight: explicit reflection and implicit understanding of intention
Not only do we have the neural capacity to express, but also, our brain has specific “modules” intended for interpretation: that is, reaction in relation to an appreciation of the other person’s intention; Daniel Siegel call this “mindsight” (Siegel, 2010, in Hill, n.d.). Mirror neurons help us to understand the truth of other minds – that they are different from our mind. This allows us to have an internal feeling of another person and allows for interplay of reaction prior to reflection. We refer to reflection here as an explicit (that is: consciously aware) state, a state of consideration or contemplation. Mirror neurons allow for an intentional interaction in the implicit state: that is, not consciously aware or considered. This means that false or unintentional action does not fire up the mirror neuron in the other. For example, in the monkey experiments, the monkeys’ mirror neurons fired up when researchers reached for a cup to take a drink, but didn’t fire up when researchers reached for the same cup in order to clean up after having drunk a cup of tea. Clearly, the capacity to understand intention without having to be consciously aware of it is a powerful addition to our protection and defence systems (Perry, 2014; Hill, n.d.).
Mirror neuron activity a pathway to empathy
Ivey (2009) asserts that empathy can be increased through mirror neuron activity, but that if it is not used, it may be lost. In that same vein, antisocial personalities have been shown to fire less upon viewing others’ pain. So, does that mean that mirror neurons are an element of empathy? Richard Hill (n.d.) uses neuroscience to answer, “Yes”, noting that the emotional areas of the brain – that is, the limbic system – are involved in the mirror neuron system. Information flows from motor areas to insula to limbic. To clarify, empathy is not only a feeling about the other’s experience, but also having a feeling about that feeling; it is an engaged response. Thus, in tapping into mirror neurons, we must ask: is the feeling I’m getting about my “mindsight” of another on target? Because it is an interpretation, we have to acknowledge that there is always the possibility of error. Our own experience can colour our feeling about another’s feeling (Hill, n.d.), so while mirror neurons are a path to empathy, they are not empathy.
Mirror neuron studies broaden understanding
Finally, neuroscientists’ excitement about mirror neurons is understandable when we realise that such studies are leading to insights in numerous areas relevant to counsellors:
- More knowledge about autism, schizophrenia, and other brain disorders characterised by poor social interactions
- A new theory about the evolution of language
- New therapies for helping stroke victims regain lost movement (Hill, n.d.; Perry, 2014).
- Hill, R. (n.d.). The neuroscience of connection: Mirror neurons and more . Mental Health Academy. Retrieved on 4 June, 2014, from: hyperlink.
- Ivey, A. (2009). Neuroscience and counseling: Integrating new research into practice from a wellness base. [Video]. Microtraining and Multicultural Development. Accessed from Mental Health Academy, Fortitude Valley, Queensland, Australia, on 10 June, 2014.
- Perry, S. (2014). Neuroanatomy. BrainFacts.org. Society for Neuroscience. Retrieved on 16 June, 2014, from: hyperlink.
- Troon, G. (2013). How counselling rewires the brain. Melbourne Child Psychology. Retrieved on 10 June, 2014, from: hyperlink.
- Wikipedia. (2014a). Mirror Neuron. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved on 16 June, 2014, from: hyperlink.