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Mirror Neurons: How Our Ability to Connect With Others Makes Us Caring, Moral By Nature

1 mirror neuronsAs it turns out, social sciences and religions alike have been seriously wrong when it comes to labeling humans as inherently “bad,” “selfish” or “aggressive,” and so on, by nature or from birth. Similarly, scientific thought has mislead us at times into thinking that our instincts for survival have been the primary motivating force of nature, to include human nature.

(It begs the question: Is it coincidence that we’ve been simultaneously taught to think of love as fluffy, secondary or an optional add on to our nature?)

Conceivably, love is a primary evolutionary force. For humans, it is the primary reason to live, and the quest for meaning in life shapes most all of our behaviors, and not merely to survive.

More than likely, our physical instincts to survive are there to serve our higher ones. A handful of psychological theorists, such as Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow, had it right. They understood certain essential instincts revealed our social nature as human beings, such as our yearnings for belonging, acceptance, making contributions, etc., substantiated by recent findings in neuroscience.

The work of Dr. Marco Iacoboni, published in his most recent book, Mirroring People:  The New Science of How we Connect with Others invites us to look at human nature with new reverence and awe.

A UCLA neurologist & neuroscientist, Dr. Iacoboni is a leading authority on “mirror neurons,” a phenomenon that neuroscientists predict will transform neuroscience as the discovery of DNA transformed biology.

The part of the brain known as “mirror neuron system” appears to get activated, whether consciously or not whenever our brain starts to think about performing certain actions or we closely watch others.

Remarkably, his studies show that, by default, the brain sees other people as reflections of ourselves, as if we’re looking at ourselves in a mirror. This explains why when someone smiles, we tend to smile back automatically without really “wanting” to. That’s because it takes more effort not to smile back than to smile.

That’s also why we cry at movies. When someone cries or feels sad, the mirror neurons in our brain fire as if we are actually feeling the emotions of the actors, and thus, unless we strongly choose not to do so (or hold beliefs that block us from doing so), we are likely to smile back when someone smiles — or cry when someone cries.

Iacoboni’s research shows that we can instantly experience a situation or a person’s feelings as if it is happening to us because these neurons pretend we are experiencing what we observe.

The concept of “secular morality”

Dr. Iacoboni refers to these as “neurons for a secular morality” and regards them as clear evidence or proof that human beings are not by nature aggressive or hoarders of resources, as often described by cross-cultural studies and history, and other natural sciences.

Though we can learn to fear and hate, to think of another group as our enemy, left on our own devices, we are wired for empathy, wired to be good and kind to one another.

Dr. Iacoboni points out that dichotomous labels can be used, strategically, to condition the brain to access our otherwise useful ability to categorize, in this case, combined with intense fear, to cause us to feel separate from one another, to experience other human beings as “objects,” that pose threats to us. This disconnect us from our innate ability to empathize with others and experience our natural response to form human connections.

The mainstream view of social sciences has described human beings as primarily individualistic,mostly caring about ourselves and our self-preservation. Religions have taught us to mistrust human nature as well, for example, born “sinful” by nature, and that we need to be socialized by force, intimidation, shame, etc., to learn to become “good” and have self-control.

In contrast, the discovery of mirror neurons shows this clearly not to be the case, and instead showing that we are wired to feel empathy for one another. We are wired to feel good when we are good or kind toward others, thus, we’re wired to treat others kindly, thoughtfully.

Nothing comes more naturally than wanting to be happy and to see others happy. We are wired to cooperate and be good to each other. It makes sense; it makes life easier when we are. And we’re much more likely to survive in cooperation, than at war over resources as we’ve been led to believe!

In a fascinating experiment during the 2014 election, Dr. Iacoboni showed members who defined themselves as either Democrats or Republicans party photographs of candidates. When participants viewed an image of a politician within their party, their mirror neurons fired strongly. They empathized with fellow party members. They could imagine being that politician.

In contrast, when the picture was of the opposition party candidate, an interesting thing happened. At first, the partipant’s mirror neurons fired. This indicated a natural empathy response occurred at first glance of another human being. When thought patterns activated awareness of affiliation with another party, however, the mirror neuron activity was suppressed.  Thus, for participants of either party, until the learned protective response was activated for the candidate of the other party, the first response was to empathize.

The implication is quite significant. Iacoboni states that our natural impulse as human beings is to create an immediate emotional connection with people. Our natural impulse is to empathize with others. However, when a label is use to identify someone as belonging to a different group, the brain shuts down the natural response of seeking to emotionally connect.

We human beings are much more similar than we think, according to Dr. Iacoboni.

And since we desire to be good toward the people we connect with, then that means being good is an innate tendency.

Now if only our major media and entertainment sources could be persuaded to stop mirroring misleading and harmful depictions of our nature and relationships.

The discovery of mirror neurons has had profound implications in the training of top athetes and Olympic champions. It has permitted their training and performance to go to higher levels than thought could ever be achieved.

These findings have important implications for society as a whole. Certain industries, such as advertising, have understood our nature and, as a result, have exercised tremendous power in persuading to buy stuff, and shop even get addicted to doing so.

These key drives to matter, to find meaning, to belong and to connect to others should carry weightier implications in shaping our school, home and work environments, our government and other political institutions.

Mirror Neurons: How Our Ability to Connect With Others Makes Us Caring, Moral By Nature

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2016). Mirror Neurons: How Our Ability to Connect With Others Makes Us Caring, Moral By Nature. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Aug 2016
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