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

As 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.

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

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  1. Fascinating research. I have been a psychiatric nurse for 35 years and I am always looking for new information. This goes back to the question regarding sociopaths and if they are born a sociopath or become one due to environment, parenting and a multitude of other variables. This appears to sound as though we are all born with the same ability to empathize. Not sure how that diminishes with people over time.

    • Thanks for commenting, Andrea. The explanation may lie in that, while we have the capacity and all the equipment we need for compassion and connection, trauma and severe neglect particular in the very early years of life, can and do alter the brain and wiring, though the effect of this can be mitigated by the presence of a supportive relationship with someone who cared. At the same time, some persons seem more resilient in handling stress than others.

  2. Not to turn this into a theological debate, but I think this article poses an interesting view that religion teaches that humans are naturally sinful, and that being naturally sinful is the direct opposite of being naturally thoughtful. Since the vast majority of humans hold a religious view, why does it have to be one or the other? It seems ignorant to choose between believing in religion (natural sinfulness/thoughtlessness), or mirror neurons. Is it inconceivable to claim that one can be sinful and thoughtful simultaneously?

    • I appreciate the feedback, thesydkyd, as it gave me an opportunity to see that I needed to change some of wording in the article, i.e., from “religions have taught us” to “some religious teachings have taught us” that may have mislead you and other readers. I completely agree in fact and never meant to imply implicitly or explicitly that I was in favor of one or the other. THe focus of my critique (as often is the case in my articles) is on “certain” limiting beliefs that do not allow us to love and accept ourselves fully, or see our basic nature as social, thoughtful and cooperative, and thus to experience the power of our beliefs in directing changes and our lives. In fact I find certain religious teachings quite inspirational, empowering, and supportive of our nature as compassionate beings, i.e., that “we’re created in the image of God” and “God is love” and so on. Thanks again for commenting.

  3. What if it goes much deeper? What if we don’t need visual contact at all, to activate mirror neurons? What if our deepest thoughts are mirrored too? Empathy, sympathy, dislike, hate? What if mirror neurons work like telepathy? Let’s say a couple has relationship issues. They go to bed at none of them finds sleep, intensely reflecting their feelings without visual contact. As for my 6 cents, that’s the most probable reason for relationships to spiral downwards.

    • Thanks for the comment, George. I completely agree, and the findings show that we do not have to see in order to “feel” the messages that are being reflected back from another person’s brain. Our brain/body’s emotional system, unlike other systems of the body, is always “open” — and THIS is the reason, perhaps, that it’s imperative we learn to regulate our own emotional system and responses to others — in particular those closest to us, especially our spouse!

      You may also be correct in attributing the “feelings” we pick up from our spouse as probable reason for a relationship to spiral downwards! It becomes as vicious cycle, the more one partner “feels” the other does not trust/value/respect them, the more the other — thus both — feel the same way.

      It does not have to remain a passive spiral downwards, however! Once we are aware of these subconscious processes, once partners understand the tremendous responsibility they have in HOW they respond to SELF and the OTHER … they can take the reins of their personal and relational health and happiness.

      If this describes what is happening in your life, or a friends, do consider couples counseling with a professional, preferably one that does imago ( Dr Harville Hendrix) or emotionally focused therapy (Dr SUe Johnson) approaches.


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