Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni on how mirror neurons teach us to be human

As a teenager in Rome, UCLA professor Marco Iacoboni read Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” and became hooked on medicine. In medical school, he quickly fell in love with the brain and the astounding power within neurons. After earning his M.D., he wanted to know more, so he added a Ph.D. in neuroscience. “What really suits me about neuroscience,” he said, ”is that, in my opinion, it is the merging point of science and the humanities. It’s a scientific activity but deals with the mind and consciousness, which are central to the humanities."

What are mirror neurons?
When I look at you making an action, if I can activate the part of my brain that I use for the same action, I don’t have to figure out what you’re trying to do. There’s an immediate understanding through these cells. Through mirror neurons, we imitate others. That’s why I, as an Italian, gesture so much. We pick up all these cultural things.

How were they discovered?
In Parma, Italy, about 25 years ago, scientists were trying to figure out how the monkey’s brain controls the grasping movement. They were looking into an area rich in cells that fire when the monkey grasps. To their surprise — in fact, they were in disbelief — some of these cells were also firing when the monkey was still and just watching someone else grasping. Those cells were mirror neurons. Now we know that humans have them, too, and even some birds.

How did you get involved in this research?
It was serendipity. At a meeting in Prague, I ran into the Italian scientist who made the initial discovery. He wanted to do brain imaging. I said, “We should collaborate.” So we started working on the human side of it here at UCLA.

Besides mimicking others, what do mirror neurons enable us to do?
Mirroring is relevant to our tendency to be empathetic. When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, and I get your state of mind right away. I feel it as you feel it. We need that mirroring in order to create a full empathic response to other people. If your baby cries, you don’t want the caregiver to cry back at the baby. You want the caregiver to feel the pain of the baby, but be proactive. A simple instinctive kind of reaction to the emotions of others has bearing on a much more reasoned pro-social behavior.

We’ve also mapped out the regions of the brain that control mirroring. In fact, mirroring and its control are constantly interacting to create a balance between your tendency to feel what I feel and the tendency to control that feeling so you are not entirely swept away by it.

You’ve said mirroring plays a role in our love of sports. How so?
There’s a strong connection. There are two aspects of sports. One is from the athlete’s standpoint — to learn how to play better. And then the fandom, the people who just watch. Mirroring works in both. Learning through observation is important, especially if you see a player who is more skilled than you are. Seeing the actions of others activates your own motor system. And watching sports is almost like playing the game. When you watch with others, you’re getting this vicarious experience, and you have the fellow humans [around you] doing the same thing. It’s highly rewarding.

How do mirror neurons factor into our buying decisions?
Creating and/or inducing mirroring during a salesman-customer interaction likely benefits salesmanship. A good salesman’s connection with the customer lowers all the defenses. You feel good if you buy stuff from this guy you like so much. I guess some politicians do that, too.

So mirror neurons affect the way we vote?
There are many variables. People have their own motives, public opinion changes and issues change, but also the public image of [candidates] is affected by what other people are thinking. [The media] report on polls [as though] people are just thinking about the issues. But if, in a community, someone says, “I’m unhappy with this candidate who I really liked two months ago,” that can spread like emotions spread. You may see an incredible sway in polls because of a community in which people reinforce each other’s decision-making.

There are a lot of negative ads in politics. One idea is that creating a negative emotion toward a person [will cause] me to vote for [the other] guy. In a two-party system, that’s almost inevitable, [but it’s] bad for democracy because it generates an association between a negative emotion and politics in general. That’s why the outsiders seem to be doing so well everywhere in the world now.

How does mirroring work in social situations?
In most cases, when you are in any social situation, you want to conform. It’s a way of feeling that you belong to that community, even if it’s just a party. And a simple way to belong is to do what other people do.

Then how much free will do we have?
That’s a beautiful question. We have a limited form of free will. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be responsible for what we do. The classical free will is that I’m always able to decide for myself and I’m fully responsible. But you’re going to be influenced by whatever you see and hear, so choose the people you hang out with. Knowing that we make a lot of decisions almost in a zombie-like, automatic pilot kind of way, be mindful of the kind of influence you expose yourself to. Should you end up in the company of someone with, say, violent behavior anyway, remember your cognitive control and try to suppress the mirroring.

Where is this science going in the future?
We had 10 years when we were doing one discovery after another, asking the very general questions. Now we are getting into the more complex stuff: the dynamics between the emotional response, the cognitive control, how much is balance, how much is due to individual differences, [and] could there be a genetic component?

The long-term goal is to try to modulate this, because it seems to be a cornerstone of social behavior and important for mental health. A number of conditions — schizophrenia, depression, autism — have a social cognition deficit. [People suffering from] malfunctioning social cognition don’t get into the minds of others. If we are able to improve empathy, we may improve the social cognition — and even the community function — of these patients. That would be a really big deal.

This story originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of UCLA Magazine.

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