I was watching the other day a documentary about a serial killer and how he tortured his victims. I hate such types of programs yet what interests me about them is how the criminals they talk about can ‘have the heart’ to hurt fellow human beings or even anything living at all. The documentary explained eventually that when the criminal’s brain was scanned, it was concluded that the special place for Empathy inside his brain had been damaged in an accident when he was a child, for which reason, he was feeling no pity nor repentance while committing those crimes.
This all drove me to wonder ‘WHAT are we without empathy?’, and the reason why I am choosing to use the word ‘what’ as opposed to ‘who’ is because the latter indicates that the individual is still considered a human being, which may entail that he or she may actually have feelings underneath the corrupted crust inside his or her brain.
So ‘what’ do we become without empathy?
In order to answer that, we should have a look at what Empathy means and entails.
Dr. Daniel Goleman in his world-famous book “Emotional Intelligence: Why EQ Matters More Than IQ” mentions an incident in Germany, whereby a bike driver had been hit by a car, and remained laying flat to the side of the road completely ignored. He said drivers in surrounding cars were looking at him without feelings/impressions on their faces awaiting their traffic lights to turn green. It may seem surprising to you or to most of us, but obviously it wasn’t surprising to those fellow drivers who didn’t even care to take that poor biker to the hospital.
Some may say that in this day and age, chivalry has almost disappeared from our glossary. There may not be time for it basically. Also, since time equals money to most of us, then actions that may delay us, can be easily assessed as futile. Some may say that life has become all about money. Others may acknowledge that and still see that there are those who are considered leaders socially who always make this extra step that no one else seems willing to do, without asking anything in return, and despite the fact that he or she may be late to their appointments as a result.
So it boils down to one’s ethics too. So for example, if a manager appreciates the concepts of family, he may not accept that his employees remain after working hours trying to make ends meet, because he may value and acknowledge that his employees actually deserve a rest, family time and right to have a life. Therefore, meanwhile he may push his employees’ performance and urge them to progress with more passion, he would still remind them that work is just part of their lives, and not a reason to forget about life.
However, when we say ethics, we may associate that with a higher brain functionality, one that is totally contradictory to the basic needs (instincts) of a primitive mind. Yet in fact, ethics can also be an organic product of one’s feelings and one’s own level of emotional intelligence. It is like having looking inward towards yourselves and emotions with the same lens, through which you look on other people’s feelings outside of you, thus, being able to establish an understanding or a connection between you and them. The more you learn to discern your emotions, the more expert you become in doing that, which in turn translates into better relationships and success in connecting with others. In other words, it is said that one who understands one’s own feelings is usually more effective in responding to other people’s feelings in return. This goes along the famous quote by Plato: “Know Thyself“.
So empathy basically is discerning your own emotions and learning to discern others’ the same way, to a degree that you put yourself in their place and imagine how it would be to be experiencing what they experience. Sounds too much, especially in this fast-paced age, but actually we see aspects of empathy wherever we go. As a matter of fact, it has been proven scientifically that we are wired for empathy. For example, if we watch someone down the street walking with a heavy stack of books or boxes, we automatically shrink our faces and imagine that we are the ones who are carrying that load.
Empathy is also proven to exit naturally in human from a very young age, like when a child sees another child that’s crying. It automatically starts crying too. If a child sees happy kids, he or she automatically starts mimicking that in return. Even most animals have different degrees of genuine empathy. We can see this in a mother animal caressing her children, or when we see two swans leaning their heads against one another forming a shape of a heart.
So how would a natural quality that allows humans, despite all of their differences (age, race, faith, gender, etc.) connect and unit with one another any time anywhere? How valuable is this unique quality to us? Are we willing to oppress it or improve it? Is it worth stopping to help out someone who seems in dire need of help?
On the other hand, what happens if we oppress our own feelings of empathy? Does this make us less human? What would a person become without empathy? I was thinking of all these questions,and realized that human fixation can be as deep as a black hole. The more one looks inwards, the more experiences one is exposed to. It also depends on the way you are looking. For example, there are those who look inwards with a loner’s attitude, reminiscing of a happy past or negatively dwelling on how unlucky one had always been. The result of such perspective conjures up even more sadness, loneliness, sense of isolation and negativity. Also, too much inward fixation can lead to a major shift of attention to the outside world and the healthy human need to socialize with other people and integrate with new potential happy encounters. When one is too focused on pitying oneself, the less empathy one is going to feel for others, thus the more distant one may become to surrounding happenings and people around one or in the world.
Empathy is said to bring people closer to one another by being able to identify with each other’s feelings and needs. It is also said to be the mother of compassion. Alfred Adler described it as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.”
On the other hand, individuals with an abusive or aggressive past may lack empathy too, as their past experiences may have turned them into beast-like humans: aggressive, selfish or a victim to one’s own primitive instincts that once they get fulfilled, one may repetitively yearn for more. Some scientist once said such individuals become more like vampires or human predators. Vampires don’t have empathy, and the more they drain a human of blood, the more blood they crave. However, both modes (the introvert and predator) can share one common tendency, which is to constantly seek sensual satisfaction through whichever way possible, and they can become not deterred by ethical or moral inhibitions that a healthy person shuns away from.
So all that brings us to the main question, which is the title of this article: What (not Who) Are We Without Empathy?
“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein
- Making actual progress – (Empathy, Part 2) (131313sketchbookproject.com)
- Social Intelligence and Leadership (lugenfamilyoffice.com)
- Couples In Conflict – EQ Education Helps If Counseling Doesn’t (junctionangermanagement.wordpress.com)
Depression affects so many people that it is often called the common cold of mental illness. The Centers For Disease Control estimates that 19 million Americans suffer from it. At some point in their lives, 10% to 25% of women and 5% to 12% of men will become clinically depressed. The sputtering economy and tenuousness of the job market doesn’t help: The Consumer Confidence Index just plunged to its lowest level since 1980.
Depression is no fashionable affliction. In it is real, insidious, and when in full bloom, debilitating. Yet far too many people are oblivious to their own deep sadness or simply refuse to recognize it. Emotional vulnerability? Verboten–especially among the achiever set. They’re less likely to ask for help than Tea Party members are to ask for a tax hike.
Ignorance and denial are not cures for depression. They are guarantees that when you finally own up to your sadness, it will kick you a hell of a lot harder than when you started suppressing it.
Here are 10 ways to detect depression early and let the healing begin.
1. You are over-confident and fearless.
Many people–and especially high achievers–cope with depression by acting in ways opposite to how they feel. (Shrinks call this “escapism.”) Engaging in daredevil pursuits, be it mounting a takeover of a rival company or quitting your job to open a restaurant, makes you feel invincible, when you’re really in the dumps. There is a method to this madness: The major cause of depressions–those not born of biochemical imbalances, of which there are plenty–is feeling out of control or helpless. Achievers loathe that feeling and fight like hell to deny it through action. But that, ultimately, won’t work.
2. You’ve gone from one drink with dinner to three before appetizers.
“Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.” Bernard Shaw’s observation is as true now as it was then. Drinking alcohol is the most common tactic people take to self-medicate emotional pain. The problem with this strategy is that when you finally recognize the pain driving you to drink, you’ll have two disorders to contend with rather than one.
3. You’re obsessed with achievement in bed.
Have a limp libido? Going on a Hugh-Hefner-like tear may not lift your spirits. If you find you’ve traded serial monogamy for seducing any partner that will have you, there is a good chance you’re trying to keep depression at bay.
4. Conflicts quickly escalate into fights.
One common but exceedingly dumb way to dull the feeling of helplessness brought on by depression is to show people you’re nobody’s patsy. Get cut off on the highway? Run the bastard off the road. Have an idea shot down at a brainstorming session? Take the opinionated punk outside and pummel him. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll have enough bruises to distract you from your emotional pain.
5. You feel nothing.
Rather than be sad, many people would choose to forgo feeling altogether. But some people end up getting stuck in neutral–dooming them to invite the same pain again and again. Worse, this zombie-like approach creates anxiety in those around you and alienates those who care for you.
6. You can’t stop socializing.
Immersing yourself in group activities sounds healthy–and for many people it is. However, if the sole purpose is to keep you from wrestling with your thoughts and feelings, having a brimming social calendar is not the answer (and you probably won’t be all that fun a companion anyway). Like the toxic mortgage securities still stinking up bank balance sheets, you have to flush out the dreck before you can start investing anew.
7. You can’t concentrate.
Everyone suffers from scattered thoughts now and again. Those who are depressed but who possess too much control to act out recklessly may do so in fantasy. But how to distinguish a healthy daydream from potentially dangerous ones? Healthy dreams involve changes in your life that you can realize in a handful of steps. Unhealthy ones take you from middle-class to movie-stardom overnight.
8. You have trouble accepting praise or goodwill.
Martin Seligman, the psychologist who revolutionized our thinking about depression, studied the behavior of dogs that were given electric shocks. Eventually, they would lay helplessly in their cages, not responding to tugs on their leashes that would have moved them to safety from the shocks. The human corollary: If you find yourself ignoring favorable gestures or simple interpersonal warmth, chances are you’re not a malcontent. You’re depressed.
9. You work harder, not smarter.
When people are depressed, they have trouble seeing novel solutions to their problems. Instead, they do more of the same. The classic example is trying to exercise your way to happiness: If you already log a few hours a week at the gym, spending another 30 more minutes every day may briefly lift your spirits. But that relief is ephemeral. When it dissipates, get off the treadmill and get to the root of what’s bothering you.
10. You laugh and cry at times that don’t call for it.
In psychiatry, the concept “inappropriate affect” refers to behavior that is emotionally out of sync with the stimulus that prompted it. People who are depressed but do not know it exhibit a unique variant of this problem: They over-react to insignificant sadness, and ignore major league bad news.
This flavor of depression, a stepchild of alexithymia which causes a gross lack of appropriate feelings, can really make you feel out-of-control. I first came across it when one of my clients told me of taking his children to the movies: “I cried in the theater when a deer lost its mother,” he said, “but when my partner handed me the legal papers demanding a dissolution of our business, I threw them in my ‘In Box’ and proceeded to order lunch.”
Abraham Maslow, one of America’s most influential psychologists, observed: “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” Fess up to how you feel so you can fight on.
You’ll be amazed at how relieved you’ll feel when you do.
As I’ve been researching more and more into the topic Adrenaline Dependence, I have come across the following useful article. I’ve read several articles on the topic but this one seems to capture some interesting thoughts… food for thought.
The first time I came across the concept of Adrenaline Dependence, I felt like a dark cover was lifted off of my eyes. Many people I know closely are tied into this never-ending web of busyness. People – even on the scarce spare time – look addictively for things to keep them busy or capture their attentions. Meanwhile, they may miss the opportunity of having some quality time by themselves in a quiet and peaceful place in their homes or gardens, or with their loved ones.
Seems like in this day and age, we are deprived of “peace of mind”. We’re constantly looking for something to do, read about, involve ourselves in, even if that was on the expense of other things that are equally important (particularly emotionally important to us), like making up for a missed tennis session that our kid was playing in, or not being able to play with our toddlers at home, because we’re trying to prove to ourselves that we can do “better” and “more intelligent” things in that time.
Some people have come across peace of mind sometime in their lives, and continued to cherish it as an important part of their days and lives even. Those are the ones that look most in control of what they wish to be doing in their lives.
What I love about this article is that it invites us to reconnect with God. Whatever it is your religion, make sure you connect with it. Spirituality is food for our souls, just like food is nutritious to our bodies. By only catering to our bodily or physical needs (connected to our physical world) is like living half a life, or like a life half-lived. Since we are half body, half soul. So which side do you feed more often?
Read on and enjoy:
Hurry Up and Be Still: Freedom From Adrenaline Dependence
Hurry Up and Be Still: Freedom from Adrenaline Dependence
By Bill Gaultiere © 2002
“How are you?” my friend asked me on the phone.
“Busy,” I replied.
“What else is new?” he laughed. “Ever since we roomed together in college I’ve admired how disciplined and productive you are.”
Years later, I still think about that exchange. Although it was opposite of my friend’s intention, I realized then that I was too busy. Like so many people in our culture, I was relying on adrenaline to keep up. Since then I’ve been learning to stop rushing around doing “urgent” things, slow down, get in tune with my soul, and interact more with God and other people.
It’s all in the Adrenaline
Archibald Hart, author of The Hidden Link Between Adrenaline and Stress, believes that “adrenaline dependence” has become the greatest addiction problem in America today. People actually become “hooked” on the energy, pleasure, and confidence that come when the body’s stress hormones – primarily adrenaline and cortisol – are released in emergencies.
God has designed our bodies wonderfully and it is a great gift that we have this instinctive, adrenal “fight or flight” response to danger that infuses us with vitality and well-being.
Adrenaline alerts us to grab our child’s hand at the curb when a car races by. It gives us confidence when we are giving a big presentation. It energizes us when we need to overcome a challenge or work through a stressful conflict. It cushions us when we get bad news. We need adrenaline to handle real life emergencies like these.
But it’s a problem for us when we live our lives in a continual state of urgency, viewing daily stresses as emergencies. Perhaps you relate to one or more of these common examples of being “keyed up” with adrenaline:
- Hurrying from one thing to the next, each more “imperative” than the last.
- Doing two or three things at once to save time.
- Jump starting ourselves with caffeine (an adrenaline stimulant) to get going in the morning, to stay alert in the afternoon, or to get psyched up before a meeting.
- Passing cars on the freeway.
- Counting people’s items in the “short order” grocery line.
- Thinking about what we else have to do when someone is talking to us.
- Working hard even into the late evening hours.
- Grinding our teeth at night as we worry about all that we didn’t get done!
Why Depend on Adrenaline?
For help managing life. That’s the short answer.
Many business people rely on adrenaline to get through their 50-hour workweek.
Even parents may depend on it to deal with their children and get them from one activity to the next.
Students who go to classes and work all day and then study late into the night use it to stay alert while depriving themselves of sleep.
It seems like we have so much we have to do and our society is changing so fast – we feel we must get keyed up to keep up!
Besides, everyone else is doing it, aren’t they? Doesn’t everyone rely on coffee and other caffeinated drinks to stay in top form? Isn’t it normal to live in a hurry going from one pressure to the next? Indeed, it seems that way.
The fast-paced, super-productive, determined life of those who rely on adrenaline is not only socially acceptable, it’s admired and rewarded in our society, perhaps especially so in our Christian culture. Certainly, this reinforcement of other people around us is another reason why we depend on adrenaline.
But I think the most important reason why so many people get hooked on adrenaline is simply because it feels good! And without it they don’t feel good.
Like people struggling with other types of compulsive behaviors, adrenaline addicts have an underlying depression. Without adrenaline flowing they feel empty inside. And they may feel inadequate or insignificant. So they keep getting keyed up. They take on pressures and they hurry things. They find something new, challenging, or exciting to get themselves stimulated.
Without realizing it, they keep calling up adrenaline to help them feel alive and important.
Are You Depending on Adrenaline?
As I illustrated at the start of this article, I am an “adrenaline addict in recovery.”
My name, “William,” (“Will I Am!”) actually means, “determined.” Sometimes it seems as if I have been programmed to be productive, hurried, and intense.
Fortunately, I’ve gotten help. I’m still in process and have to watch myself closely, but I’ve learned some things about replacing adrenaline dependence with soul care. And I’ve had the opportunity to help other “junkies” step off the treadmill of a hurried life and onto the path of a soul-full life. So if I’m hitting a nerve for you, keep reading.
The first step to recovery from any compulsion is admitting to your problem.
And the best way to spot it if you (or someone you’re concerned about) is an adrenaline depender is to understand what you’re like when you’re not running your life at a fast pace. When adrenaline addicts slow down they are not happy. So they try not to slow down!
When people who go through their typical day all keyed up relax – say on weekends, in the evening before bed, or on vacation – they experience withdrawal symptoms like these:
- A compulsion to get busy, be more productive, or be stimulated with noise or activity
- Emptiness, boredom, and depressed mood
- Feelings of guilt about being idle
- Irritability or loss of temper
- Worrying about work that needs to be done
- Fidgetiness or restlessness (e.g., pacing, finger or foot tapping, fast gum chewing)
- Utter exhaustion
The Price of a Hurried Life
Living under the pressure of urgency or being keyed up is costly.
In addition to experiencing the periodic unpleasant withdrawal symptoms described above, people who live with adrenaline surging through their bodies regularly suffer from things like anxiety, rapid heartbeats, headaches, backaches, gastric distress, and sleep problems. And they dramatically increase their risk of stress-related illnesses ranging from viruses and ulcers to heart disease and cancer.
I think that the most serious consequence of an adrenaline-driven lifestyle (one with eternal significance) is that it crowds out God. You become a “human-doing” instead of a human being. Life is lacking in the things that are most enjoyable and meaningful: loving relationships, delightful experiences, creative expression, passionate pursuits, and spirituality. God, when you do focus on Him, seems distant and unconcerned or like a harsh taskmaster.
More Sleep, Less Adrenaline
Recently I read an excerpt from Rest: Experiencing God’s Peace in a Restless World, a book by Siang-Yang Tan, Ph.D. The article on Crosswalk.com caught my attention because the title was “Go to Bed.”
Go to Bed? I thought. Like most adrenaline junkies I’m used to thinking things like, “Sleep Less, Accomplish More” or “How to Get More Done in Less Time,” but not “Go to Bed!”
Dr. Tan is right though. A recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation (Yes, such an organization does exist!) found that 63% of Americans sleep less than eight hours a night during the week, with 35% sleeping less than seven hours.
Tan cited a study, which showed that when people were given the opportunity to sleep as much as they wanted they slept an average of 8 ½ hours, and they reported feeling happier and more energetic. I believe this is because sleep is one of the vital ways that we need to rejuvenate our bodies and minds from the stresses and adrenaline surges of the day.
You see, you can’t live without some adrenaline. It’s appropriate and good for you to draw on adrenaline in times of true emergency or in order to tackle a very important challenge.
The critical issue is that you come down from times of stimulation and intensity. You need a recovery period so that you can rest and recuperate your body and mind. This means times of relaxation during your day, as well as regular vacations to really “get away.”
Let me share an example. One of the ways I like to unwind from the stresses of a typical day is to go in the Jacuzzi with my wife Kristi. It’s so refreshing to sit in the spa, feel the heat and pulsating bubbles, enjoy the flowers in our garden, and talk. It seems I can feel the adrenaline drain from my body! Not only does this help me to de-stress, but also it helps me to get ready for a good night’s sleep. That is so much more restful than catching up on all my e-mail!
If you’re having trouble relaxing and getting to sleep or you’re not waking up feeling refreshed then consider Dr. Tan’s advice (I’ve added some of my own thoughts too) on how to sleep well. This advice also applies to getting free from adrenaline dependence!
- Allow yourself enough sleep each night, probably 8 hours (or more!)
- Avoid adrenaline stimulating activities in the evening (e.g., pressure, busyness, excitement, noise)
- Turn off the TV or computer earlier
- Turn down the lights in the evening to trigger production of melatonin, a hormone for sleep
- Stay away from caffeine, spicy foods, and sweets in the evening
- Take some time in the evening to relax, do nothing, or enjoy something soothing
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day
- Unclutter your mind before going to bed by verbalizing your thoughts and feelings to a friend, to God in prayer, or to yourself by journaling
- Use relaxation techniques like slow, deep breathing and meditation on Scripture
- If you awake in the night try to stay in bed and relax
- Avoid long-term use of sleeping pills
Rest in God’s Care
Rest is so important that it’s part of the 4th commandment to remember the Sabbath. The Sabbath connects rest with worship (Exodus 34:21).
Even many Christians ignore this commandment (except that they may go to church) by rationalizing that Jesus undid it. That’s not true! Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it! (Matthew 5:17) He removed the legalism that the religious leaders added to the Sabbath so that people could do things like feed themselves and their animals and care for those in need without the imposition of silly restrictions.
And Jesus taught that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8) and that the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit, not the reverse (Mark 2:27).
As the writer of Hebrews wrote, “There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God… Therefore make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:9,11). Today we need this Sabbath rest more than ever!
Was Getting Rest a Problem in Jesus’ Day?
In the first century it seems that rest was more a part of people’s lives, certainly that of Jesus and the apostles. No business or work was done on the Sabbath.
Worship and meditation on Scripture were regularly part of most people’s lives. Without electricity, their activity and work were more in sync with sunlight, leaving the evenings for relaxing and nighttime for sleeping more hours (as recently as 1850 people slept 9 ½ hours per night!). Instead of speeding down roads and freeways they walked most places they went. Families and communities were more connected. Meals were lingered over. Information was limited, as it was passed on mostly through word of mouth.
And yet, even 2,000 years ago people needed to be urged to “Make every effort to enter [God’s] rest” (Hebrews 4:11).
We need to “work” at caring for our souls. This includes practicing healthy lifestyle habits like remembering the Sabbath, getting enough sleep, exercising, relaxing in the evenings, enjoying restful meals with family and friends, and limiting the barrage of information the intrudes in our space each day – all things that were more naturally a part of life even just 100 years ago.
The goal, not only for people with “hurry sickness”, but for everyone is to live with our souls at rest in God as we do all that we do. Jesus invites us into his “easy yoke” in Matthew 11:28-30:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Relying on God’s mercy and grace to us through Jesus is opposite of the adrenaline-driven life. We learn to stop trying to control our lives and make things work out. We work at not letting other people or things control our lives too. Instead, we go to God (and His ambassadors in the Body of Christ). He gives us love and blessings and we receive. He gives us dreams and directions and we follow.
As Paul wrote, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). To have our being in God is a matter of growing our faith by putting our trust in God and practicing spiritual disciplines to get ourselves in the position to rest in God and respond to Him.
Now is the Time to Be Still
What am I trying to say here? What is the key to overcoming adrenaline dependence and relying God? Loving the Lord who loved us first. (Matthew 22:37, 1 John 4:19) When I still my soul and open myself up to God I sense His presence and his peace which is far more wonderful than adrenaline!
- I see His beauty in the flowers.
- I hear His song in the birds.
- I experience His comfort in a friend.
- I read the Bible as His words to me.
- I feel the honor of doing His work in caring for those in need.
It begins with cultivating a quietness inside my soul, which doesn’t come naturally or easily for me! As the verse from Hebrews above implores us, I have to “make every effort to enter God’s rest.” I have to hurry up and be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10).
Why the hurry? Because the only moment to experience God’s favor is right now (2 Corinthians 6:2) and it so quickly passes by in a blur of worries, pressures, and busyness. Resting in God’s care right now is life’s one vital emergency with eternal consequences and it’s the only one that doesn’t rely on adrenaline! If there is anything in life to be in a “hurry” about then that’s it.
You Can’t Hurry the Soul
Dr. John Ortberg, in his article “Taking Care of Busyness” (Leadership Magazine, Fall 1998) wrote that he asked a mentor of his, “What do I need to do to be spiritually healthy?” There was a long pause and then the man replied, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurriedness from your life.” John then asked, “What else should I do?” (Perhaps he didn’t like the first answer!) After another long pause the mentor answered, “There is nothing else.”
What would your life look like if you lived life without being in a hurry? If you slow down could you persevere through the depressing symptoms of adrenaline withdrawal to find out what’s on the other side? Could you develop a more soul-full life?
You’d accomplish less. You’d feel less important. You might miss the buzz adrenaline gives.
But you’d have opportunities to invest more in your relationships with God, others, and yourself. You could focus on becoming the person God has created you to be, enjoying His blessings, and sharing His love with others.
It’s worth it! I know I’ve experienced the hurried life and the soul-full life. And in my journey I’ve gone back and forth many times. I’m learning to be patient with myself because I’ve learned that recovery from adrenaline dependence is a process that can’t be hurried.
Published on Jan 16, 2012
What do mirror neurons teach about us about our empathy? This week, leading neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni visited with Six Seconds’ Master Class in Pajaro Dunes, California, for an oceanside chat on mirror neurons and their relationship to empathy and learning. A few of us collected some of the takeaways:
What are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons are “smart cells” in our brains that allow us to understand others’ actions, intentions, and feelings. The mirror neurons are in many areas of our brains, and they fire when we perform an action such as grasping an apple, and similarly we see others doing it. As it turns out, our mirror neurons fire when we experience an emotion and similarly when we see others experiencing an emotion, such as happiness, fear, anger, or sadness. When we see someone being sad, for example, our mirror neurons fire and that allows us to experience the same sadness and to feel empathy. We don’t need to “think” about the other person being sad, we actually experience it firsthand. The reaction of mirror neurons allows us to socialize and communicate with others as we read their facial expressions. There is also an important ability to dampen this reaction, and there are several centers in our brains that act as “brakes” to keep us from becoming too caught up in others’ experiences. This process can have profound implications for our relationships.
Interestingly, human mirror neuron networks are stimulated in response to actions which are apparently meaningless, indicating a tendency to spontaneously model any and all movements by others (Giacomo Rizzolatti, Fogassi, & Gallese, 2001).
The Chameleon Effect
Professor Iacoboni explained that mirror neurons are the reason for the “chameleon effect” which is the brain-to-brain imitation of postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions. It’s what causes adults to smile when they see a baby smiling. He also said that people who are more empathetic exhibit the chameleon effect to a greater extent that other people do. This is an automatic “matching” that causes humans to connect – even if they’re not aware of the connection.
Broken Mirror Neurons
Professor Iacoboni mentioned that children on the Autism Spectrum may struggle with social interaction because their mirror neuron systems are not functioning properly. The discovery of mirror neuron deficiencies in people with autism opens up new approaches to diagnosing and treating the disorder.
Inspired by Professor Iacoboni’s keynote presentation, we discussed the link between role modeling and the neuroscience of mirror neurons. Modeling occurs because we can consciously and unconsciously observe someone and learn from them. We can intentionally improve our abilities by paying attention to someone who is skilled in a particular area. Iacoboni said that one of the first elements of learning is observing others, and we automatically begin to learn through this process. We can intensify the learning by focusing on the role model and imagining ourselves doing what they do. This is why we are committed to modeling excellence in emotional intelligence! So if we are not achieving our desired results, we should “hang out” with people who are strong in these skills.
This seems to be true for emotions as well. Through mirror neurons, emotions are contagious — so if we want to be more joyful (for example), a powerful action is to spend time with people who are full of joy.
The power of mirror neurons is another compelling reason that leaders need to take responsibility for their own actions and choices. People are literally mirroring the leader’s actions — and the leader’s emotions. Simply showing up with more ideal behavior and an intentional emotional state is an important part of imparting these qualities to others. Since mirror neurons are “always on” leaders have a huge responsibility to monitor and manage themselves as role models.
Iacoboni repeatedly reminded us that we are, literally, wired to connect. Humans are social, and empathy is a fundamental component of the human condition. In the new Afterword to his fascinating book, Mirroring People, Professor Iacoboni points to the importance of this groundbreaking research. Mirror neurons “help us to be empathic and fundamentally attuned to other people. This is perhaps the most important finding of all, and it is a beautiful one.”
To hear more about these concepts, listen to this dialogue between Professor Iacoboni and the Dalai Lama during “Happiness and its Causes” conference.