If you haven’t heard of “mirror neurons” yet, you probably will pretty soon. They are the darlings of publicity-focused brain scientists like V.S. Ramachandran http://www.ted.com/speakers/vilayanur_ramachandran and Daniel Siegel http://www.drdansiegel.com/, and such popularizers of neuroscience as executive trainer David Rock http://www.davidrock.net/about/.
Mirror neurons are cells in various parts of your brain that, when observed with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) light up when you see other people perform an intentional action. As Rock puts it, “If you see someone pick up a piece of fruit to eat, mirror neurons in your brain will light up.” And what makes these cells really intriguing is this: “These same mirror neurons light up when you eat a piece of fruit yourself.” So your brain is in some ways experiencing what another person is doing in the same way as it experiences you doing the same thing. It seems as if mirror neurons might be the basis for understanding another person “from the inside.”
This remarkable function leads many of these researcher-writers to believe that mirror neurons are the physiological foundation for empathy, which is widely recognized as one of every human’s most important social capabilities. Why is empathy so important? Because if you can actually “walk a mile in another person’s moccasins,” you may be able to understand parts of him or her almost as well as the other person understands him- or herself.
This capability is crucial for many hugely important reasons. For one thing, tyrants use propaganda to depersonalize enemies by blocking empathy. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, bin Laden, and every autocrat who promotes mass murder knows that the only way to recruit others to their cause is to get them to think of their enemies as sub- or non-humans—“bacilli,” “enemies of the state,” or “infidels.” If you can eliminate empathy, you can get away with genocide.
On the completely opposite side of the scale, every person in the helping professions—counselors, teachers, psychiatrists, nurses, doctors, parents—has to empathize in order to make their help helpful. When they try to work with their clients, students, patients, or children without deeply understanding some of where they’re coming from, the helpers’ interventions are usually ineffective, and can be even worse. When they effectively empathize, they can help create the crucial "feeling of being felt."
At the group or social level, empathy is also an important antidote for all the ‘isms—racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and cultural stereotyping.
All socially significant research programs include skeptics, of course, and there are neuroscientists who question some of the claims made about mirror neurons. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/11/06/whats-so-special-about-mirror-neurons/ But you can’t read the research without wondering whether neuroscientists have identified the first, tiny piece of what could develop into a version of Star Trek’s Vulcan mind meld.
If you find that possibility laughable—and at this point, I think it’s pretty far-fetched—then I encourage you just to notice that the mirror neuron studies demonstrate how our brains really are capable of creating connections between people that are not based just on objective observations and impersonal categories.
As psychiatrist and philosopher Iaian McGilchrist exhaustively demonstrates, the human brain empowers us to understand everything around us both impersonally and personally. Unfortunately, impersonal ways of understanding have
become so far dominant that we’re in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human. . . . [The result is] a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure, narrow self-interest and a mechanistic view of the world hold sway, at an enormous cost to human happiness and the world around us. [ The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), back cover.] http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com/
My 40+ years of studying and teaching communication have convinced me that McGilchrist is tragically right. This is why I wrote U&ME: Communicating in Moments that Matter—to help people correct some of the imbalance that McGilchrist identifies by making all their communicating as personal as possible.