Posted in Articles, Creative Solutions For You, Life Coaching

Are We Wired for Empathy?


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.



Hi, I am Coach Razan Kilani. I am certified by the International Coach Federation as a PCC. I have coached over 35 clients for over 1500 hours. I love my work! It's been such an honor for me to share my clients' lives, troubles, achievements and precious moments. Together, we nurtured their paths and mine towards success and happiness. My job interprets who I am and very much enables me to fulfill my innermost values in life, such as giving, understanding, respecting, caring and going on perseveringly. I established Wisdom Within Consultancy over 6 years ago, and has catered to wide ranges of my clients, of all ages, circumstances, and challenges. At Wisdom Within Consultancy, we offer Emotional Intelligence highly Certified Coaching to individuals and groups, comprising all ages and different fields of work. We coach business groups, yet we do focus on the person interacting in the different aspects of his or her life (parenting, relationship and work). Coach Razan empowers you to achieve goals you have always wanted to achieve, and to overcome obstacles that are hindering your progress in life and work. With over 6 years of international experience, I would love to support you to find your inner voice, and live the life you wish to live, in order to be happy, successful and content. Contact me on and begin your life changing journey! If you feel stuck in any way, then Wisdom Within Coaching can help you. Low self-confidence, work-life balance, emotional intelligence, social anxiety, weight loss, reducing your social and emotional anxiety and stress, improving your or your employees' performance, finding time to meditate or to spend time with your loved ones and if you need help in realizing your dream goals, get the work you want, etc. then please contact us on We can help you get unstuck and move toward the life you really want to live from now on. Join us!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s