You see someone take a drink and, suddenly, you get thirsty too. Someone yawns, and you yawn even though you are not the least bit sleepy. Ever wonder why this happens? It is because of some things called mirror neurons in your brain. No, darn it! You don’t have a little disco ball in your head. However, we do have these circuits of neurons in the prefrontal cortex which cause us to do such strange things and give us the ability to map out and follow the minds of others.
In his book Mindsight, Dan Siegel tells of an experiment in the in the 1990′s in which neuroscientists implanted electrodes in a monkey’s cortex. Of course, rather predictably, when the monkey ate a peanut, certain 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! Ding, ding! Big deal! This was HUGE and changed everything! The same mirror neuron system has been identified in humans.
The wild thing is that the mirror neuron system has been shown to respond only to acts of intention. This means that if I raise my hand up and wave it in around the air randomly, your mirror neurons do not respond. However, if I raise my hand with a cup in it, your mirror neurons will predict from experience that I am going to drink from the cup, and your neurons 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 care givers as babies. You smile at as 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 care givers are so important for infants. This mirror neuron system is considered to be the basis for empathy.
By adulthood, these mirror circuits are well established in most people. (I can think of a few where it never quite took hold!) You approach a group of people laughing and smiling. You start to chuckle to yourself before you even know what they are talking about. You and your best friend are drowning her bad breakup over a few glasses of wine. You start to feel a heaviness in your chest and a lump in your throat that is not due to the cheap wine. Scientists call this emotional contagion. We can even come to resonate physiologically with others. Our respiration, blood pressure, and even heart rate can rise and fall in sync with someone’s sensed internal emotional state.
Amazingly enough, this mirror neuron system is one thing magicians capitalize on to do a good many of their illusions. Because of this system, you will tend to focus on whatever the magician pays attention to even if is 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 we 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 very good at reading others. When you allow yourself to experience and identify your own emotions, you are going to open the pathway for resonating with others. Got all that emotional goo?
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 is present in everyone – even men – and literally interconnects us all and can allow you to do some pretty cool magic tricks!