IN THE EARLY 1990s, Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti was working with a team studying the brain of a macaque monkey at the University of Parma in Italy. During this time they found, quite by accident, that when one of the scientists ate a peanut, the same motor neurons fired in the monkey’s brain as if the monkey had eaten a peanut, too. These neurons were called “mirror” neurons. because they fire not only when performing an action, like eating a peanut, but they also fire by observing the actions of another.
When we see someone eating a delicious slice of banana cream pie and our mouth waters, or someone giggles and we smile, or they yawn, and suddenly so do we, it’s because our mirror neurons in our brain are kicking in.
But why is this revolutionary new research, and what does it mean for human beings?
One of the reasons that mirror neuron research is so fascinating is because it has broad implications for the connections we share with the people in our lives. Dr. Daniel Siegel, a pioneering neuropsychiatrist in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, has written about the way that mirror neurons work in our relationships, especially with our children, in his recent book, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. As a parent educator, I have drawn on Siegel’s work about the human mind to speak to parents about the way children’s brains develop, and why their relationship with their child is so influential to how their child’s brain is shaped.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know how mirror neurons operate.
Mirror neuron research has implications for all of our relationships, with our children, friends, co-workers, family members and lovers. Just as our mouth begins to water when we see someone eating a delicious piece of pie, we also mirror the emotional states of others, according to Dr. Siegel. We are like sponges, soaking up the behaviors, intentions, and emotions of those around us.
How many of us notice that when we feel happy, our days flow with a joyful ease that, at times, can feel magical. Our children behave better; our coworkers are helpful; everyone seems to respond to us cheerfully. Mirror neuron research indicates our state of happiness is having a direct positive neurological impact on everyone we meet. That is why vibrant, healthy people are so magnetic; we want their positive state of mind to rub off on us.
Just the opposite is true, as well, if we spend time with fearful, pessimistic people, our brains pick up all those negative vibes they are sending out. It is no wonder we are often naturally repelled by these kinds of people. Our brains are actively being reshaped with every conversation, and every relationship we have throughout our entire lives.
Mirror neuron research shows us there is an outer resonance to our own internal states of mind. When we become aware of this, it gives us the impetus to consider how we are impacting others, and how others are impacting us. By paying attention during the everyday, ordinary moments of our lives, we can tune into what is going on within us, becoming mindful of our internal states of mind.
As we learn how to sift for the sensations, images, feelings and thoughts in our minds, we gain a much deeper understanding of ourselves, Dr. Siegel writes. As we grow in self-awareness, we help our children to do the same, because they “mirror” us. That is why I teach parents that one of the best gifts they can give their children is to simply stay present, to be intentional about the way they are shaping their child’s mind.
Mirror neuron research confirms that we directly pass on our emotional life to our children. In reality, that is a gift in every relationship we have. Now we have the motivation and the powerful insight to embrace the inner life of our thoughts and feelings, knowing that our health and well-being is not just about “me,” but is always about “we,” because we are all fundamentally connected neurologically.