Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mirror Neurons - Wired for the Golden Rule

You're walking down a sidewalk and you look up to see a man, a total stranger passing by. The man makes eye contact with you and gives you a warm, friendly smile. Your natural reaction is to feel kindly towards this person. Why?

You're in a grocery store standing behind a man in a check-out line. The man turns and accidentally bumps the front of your cart. He glares at you with anger and in a menacing voice says, "Watch what you're doing, creep!" You feel hostility towards this person. Why?

One explanation is that it's natural to instinctively want to connect with people who may help you and distance yourself from people who may harm you.

But neuroscientists have discovered what's going on in the brain that explains our ability to feel what others are feeling. It's a system on both sides of the brain, next to the motor strip, which connects seeing the actions and feelings of others and triggering similar actions and feelings in ourselves. They call them "mirror neurons."

For a simple, entertaining explanation from the Nova science series, watch this brief video.

In short, we look at what others are doing, and we share the feeling of that experience. We observe the feelings of others, and we feel the feelings ourselves. It turns out that empathy is a kind of "monkey-see-monkey-do" thing. It helps us learn from others. It helps us understand what's going on with the people around us. So it helps us connect with others beneficially - become highly social beings.

Of course, not all brains are the same. Some people are born with poorly developed mirror neuron systems. Psychopaths, for example, have a hard time understanding the feelings of others. So it doesn't bother them to do cruel things.

This new development in brain science, which helps us understand ourselves and how we relate to others, calls to mind some ancient concepts.

One is "karma." What goes around comes around. Project good into the world through your actions, and eventually it will come back to benefit you. This makes sense when you think about mirror neurons. When you do good things for others, they will mirror that, feel kindly towards your kindness and want to be kind back.

The other concept comes from Jesus: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Golden Rule. If you want others to do positive and beneficial things for you, then do it unto them first.

The concept of mirror neurons also explains what the experts say about networking. They claim that if you want to build mutually beneficial relationships with people who can help you succeed, your first step is to contact them, express your support for their work and offer to help them achieve their goals - with no agenda for payback. They claim that if you do that, the payback will happen naturally. Your new contacts will experience your helpfulness and want to act in a helpful way towards you in return.

Do unto others...

It's not a 100% foolproof system, but if you want to achieve rapport and connect, be supportive. Be helpful. Be generous. Be considerate. Be positive. Offer a sincere smile to the people you encounter along your path...

Enlightened self-interest. Abundance mentality.

Isn't it wonderful that being a good person is a survival mechanism, a part of our biology? And that being a grumpy, nasty, self-serving jerk will eventually lead to your downfall?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use image purchased from


Unknown said...

I appreciate your sharing these insights Brother Dennis. We are originally wired to be humane to one another, but a sick society has its influences. ~Namaste @Peta_de_Aztlan

Jeremy said...

I love the idea that science backs up the it "feels good" to do good. Thanks for this article. I'll be sharing it with my readers.

Christine Mann said...

I too will be sharing this article, Denny - thanks.

Carol Engler said...
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