100 Things You Should Know About People: #23 — You Are Hard-Wired For Imitation and Empathy

Baby sticking out tongueIf you put your face right in front of a young baby and stick out your tongue, the baby will stick out his or her tongue too. This happens from a very young age (even as young as a one month old). So? What does this have to do with anything? It’s an example of the built-in, wired-into-our-brain capacity we have for imitation. Recent research on the brain shows how our imitative behavior happens.

Mirror neurons firing— In the front of the brain there is a section called the premotor cortex; motor as in movement. This is the part of the brain where you make plans to move. (It talks to the primary motor cortex which is the part of the brain that sends out the signals that actually make you move). So if you are holding an ice cream cone and you think about moving your arm to bring the ice cream cone up to your mouth, and then you do it, you can see first the premotor cortex lighting up and then the primary motor cortex lighting up. Neurons in the premotor cortex are firing — nothing surprising there. But here is where it gets interesting. If you watch someone else lift their arm and eat the ice cream cone a subset of the same neurons also fire. Just watching other people take an action causes some of the same neurons to fire as if you were actually moving. This subset of neurons have been dubbed, “mirror neurons”. We share these mirror neurons with other primates as well.

Who is taking action? — How does your brain know when you are taking the action vs. watching someone else take the action? After your mirror neurons fire from watching your friend take a lick of the ice cream cone, there is a feedback loop. Your brain registers that no ice cream was tasted, and therefore you know that you are watching someone eat ice cream, not that you just ate ice cream.

Not just imitation but empathy too — The latest theories are that these mirror neurons are also the way we empathize with others. We are literally experiencing what others are experiencing through these mirror neurons, and that allows us to deeply, and literally, understand how another person feels.

So what’s the big deal? — What implications can you draw from knowing about mirror neurons?:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of watching someone else do something. If you want to influence someone’s behavior, then show someone else doing the same task.
  • There is research that shows that stories create images in the mind that may also trigger mirror neurons. Stories are powerful.
  • Video at a web site is especially compelling. Want people to get a flu shot? Then show a video of other people in line at a clinic getting a flu shot. Want kids to eat vegetables? Then show a video of other kids eating vegetables. Mirror neurons at work.

For more information watch the TED video of VS Ramachandran: http://bit.ly/aaiXba

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8 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #23 — You Are Hard-Wired For Imitation and Empathy”

  1. Really interesting post.

    These are also the reason for the way we cringe when someone makes a gaff on the sports field etc.

    Martin Lindstrom’s Buy-ology has some more info on mirror neurons and worth a read.

  2. Great post!

    If you’re interested in mirror neurons and empathy, I really recommend the book “The Social Neuroscience of empathy” which came out last year (editors: Decety & Ickes).

    I also recommend this nice site, which has friendly explanations about mirror neurons and different pathologies, and also recommends great books and games –
    http://mirrorneuronsresearch.com/

  3. “primary motor cortex” is the same as pre-motor cortex?
    Maybe I read wrong but pre-motor cortex is the name of the structure that deal with that “abstract” movement you described. It’s also located at the pre-frontal cortex, isn’t?

    My memory is terrible. Maybe I will have to read about it again.
    I love your posts. Love neuroscience.

  4. Fabio,

    You are correct. That was a misprint on my part and I have corrected it. Thanks so much for catching that.

    Susan

  5. Great stuff.

    But I don’t think we’re wired for empathy, it’s something learned through other people’s example.

    There is a reason why elders and people have to remind each other the great law: “Do unto others as you would like to be done.”

    So the best way to proliferate a world of peace is to live that example in our own lives so others witness and mirror it.

    I wonder how this study can be applied to content of media, arts, and the reflection of such in the behavior of societies. For ex. People exposed to violence in media… are they more prone to violence in their own lives? This presents a moral dimension to what content is presented in media and the web.

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