(3 minute read, or if you’d prefer, click to watch a Ted Talk on the subject)
Next time you’re on the MTR and you see a baby or toddler, try an experiment: stick your tongue out at the child. Assuming they don’t look away in fear, and that their parent doesn’t hustle them away from this odd stranger (you), sooner or later they will often stick their own tongue back out at you. They’re not being rude: they’re just unconsciously mimicking you. And we take that kind of behavior for granted — kids naturally mimic other people.
But if you stop and think about it, it’s quite surprising that a one year old can make the connection between seeing your tongue protrude and the complex muscle movements that make their own tongue stick out. How on earth do they know what to do?
Well, it turns out that this capability is hardwired into us through something called mirror neurons. Here’s what happens: In order for you to stick your tongue out, certain neurons in your brain have to fire, neurons which control the muscles which make your tongue move. When that baby sees you stick your tongue out, the simple sight of your action causes certain neurons in her brain to start firing too. And those neurons are exactly the same neurons that have to fire in order for the baby to stick her own tongue out. In effect, the baby’s brain starts to mirror what has already happened in your brain.
This is certainly interesting from a learning point of view: it’s a lot easier for a child to learn if simply watching an activity causes their neurons to fire which enables them to replicate the activity. Monkey see, monkey do, as the old saying goes. But the impact is not just on learning — it’s also on feelings.
Here’s how feelings get transmitted via mirror neurons. Let’s imagine you’re looking at that baby, but instead of sticking your tongue out, you think of something that makes you happy and you smile. The baby sees you smile, and that triggers mirror neurons in her brain which control the facial muscles that will make her smile too. But since smiling is associated with feeling happy, the baby begins to feel happy too. Your happiness has become contagious.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we can make babies smile when we smile, make them happy when we’re happy, and make them stick out their tongues every time we stick out our tongues. Babies (and the rest of us) have the choice of whether to mirror the actions or emotions of other people. We are all, however, primed to know what it feels like, because something very similar is going on inside our own brains. So when we see someone touch something hot, pull back suddenly, scrunch up their face in pain and yell, we can feel a shadow of what they’re feeling. When we see someone crying bitterly, we are moved because our mirror neurons enable us feel a bit of what they’re feeling.
We all know individuals who are interpersonally clumsy. They’re insensitive, they don’t seem to get what other people are feeling. You might even say they’re a little bit autistic, disconnected from others. If so, maybe it’s not their fault — perhaps it’s just that their mirror neurons don’t work that well, and so they simply can’t sense the emotions of others. Similarly, other people seem very much in tune with those around them and quickly form deep relationships: perhaps they are lucky enough to have lots of well functioning mirror neurons.
So mirror neurons are very useful for our life as social creatures. They give us empathy. They enable us to sense what other people are feeling, help each other when we need help, and stay away from painful or dangerous things without having to experience that pain or danger ourselves. It’s hard to imagine us being able to cooperate to build large, complex societies without the ability to understand what others are feeling…so perhaps civilization itself depends on these mirror neurons.