The following has been excerpted from Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships by psychiatrist Amy Banks, MD (with Leigh Ann Hirschman), which outlines how we can strengthen our brains’ neural pathways that help us connect positively with others.
An uncanny observation
It was one of those lucky scientific mistakes, an unexpected observation that could have easily gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been for an astute researcher. When Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neurophysicist at the University of Parma, and his research team began their now-famous experiment, they were not intending to explore how human beings interact. In fact, they were not even studying people. The Italian researchers were mapping a small area, known as F5, in the brains of the macaque monkey. At this point in neurological research, it was already well known that the F5 neurons fire when a monkey reaches his arm and hand away from his body to grasp an object.
One routine day in the lab, a researcher observed something unprecedented. The researcher was standing in the line of sight of a monkey whose F5 cells had been implanted with micro-sized electrodes. As the researcher reached out to grasp an object, the electrodes placed on the monkey’s F5 area activated.
Remember: It was known than the F5 neurons activate when a monkey moves his arm to grasp something.
Then think about this: The monkey was not moving his arm. He was simply watching as the researcher’s arm moved.
This seemed impossible. At the time of this observation, scientists believed that the nerve cells for action were separate and distinct from the nerve cells for sensory observations. Sensory neurons picked up information from the outside world; motor neurons were devoted to acting. So when the F5 area, known for its link to physical action, lit up in the brain of a monkey who was only watching action in someone else, it was a clear violation of this known divide. It was as if the brain of the monkey and the brain of the researcher were somehow synchronized. Even more unsettling, it was as if their brains overlapped, as if the researcher’s physical movement existed inside the monkey. [Rizzolatti, Fadiga, Gallese, Fogassi. “Premotor Cortex and the Recognition of Motor Actions,” Cognitive Brain Research 3 (1996).]
The “mirroring effect” in humans
As Rizzolatti and other neuroscientists pursued this odd observation, they found that human brains also demonstrate this mirroring effect. In other words, you understand me by performing an act of internal mimicry—by letting some of my actions and feelings into your head.
Ask a friend to briskly rub her hands together as you watch. Chances are that as her hands become warm from the friction, your hands will start to feel warm, too. In the aftermath of the monkey experiment, it was hypothesized that our brains contain mirror neurons, nerve cells that are dedicated to the task of imitating others. Most scientists no longer feel that specific mirror neurons exist; instead, there is a brain-wide mirroring system whose tasks are shared by a number of regions and pathways. The imitating effect—the reason your hands warm up when your friend rubs hers together—happens because neural circuits throughout your brain are copying what you hear and see. Nerves in your frontal and prefrontal cortex (the same ones that are activated when you plan to rub your own hands together and then execute that plan) begin to fire. At the same time, neurons in your somatosensory cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for bodily sensations, activate and send you messages of friction and warmth. Deep inside your brain, your hands are rubbing themselves together—even if your hands don’t actually move.
Actually, the process goes far beyond the mere reflection of another person’s actions. Your mirroring system is made up of neurons that can “see” or “hear” what someone else is doing. The system then recruits neurons from other areas of the brain to provide you with input not just about sensations and actions but about emotions, too. This input lets you have a comprehensive, detailed imitation of what the other person is experiencing. That’s why you can almost instantly pick up on the emotion of another person. If you watch as I rub my hands together, your brain might read the excitement on my face as I demonstrate how the mirroring system works—and you may feel some of that excitement. If you’ve ever “caught” a smile that you spotted on the face of a complete stranger, or if the silent tension of your partner has caused your own heart to race, you’ve experienced the effects of the mirroring system. This emotional contagion is caused by a neural pathway that can, in effect, take in another person’s feelings and replicate them squarely inside you.
When I ask groups of people to try the hand-rubbing experiment, there are usually two sets of reactions. Some people are amazed, as if they’ve just watched themselves pull a rabbit out of a hat. Their neurological connection with others feels like magic. But other people immediately say, “This is creepy!”
I get it. When you’ve been taught all your life that your mind is its own little castle, one that’s surrounded by a thick, high wall that’s designed to keep your thoughts and feelings in and everyone else’s out, it can be unsettling to learn about the power of the mirroring system. And in fact, the discovery of our mirroring ability challenges some traditional assumptions about how our brains and bodies are wired. Vittorio Gallese, a neurophysiologist in the Parma lab, described the role of the mirroring system in human interactions this way: “The neural mechanism is involuntary, with it we don’t have to think about what other people are doing or feeling, we simply know.” [Winerman, “The Mind’s Mirror,” Monitor on Psychology 36, no.9 (2005).]
Marco Iacoboni, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, takes it one step farther in his 2008 book, Mirroring People [New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 267]. He says that the mirroring system helps us in “…understanding our existential condition and our involvement with others. They show that we are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with another.”
Responding to others is inevitable
When you and I interact, an impression of the interaction is left on my nervous system. I literally carry my contact with you around inside me, as a neuronal imprint. The next time you hear someone say, “Don’t let other people affect how you feel,” remember the mirroring system. Because we don’t really have a choice. For good or for bad, other people affect us, and we are not as separate from one another as psychologists once thought.