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The New Science of How We Connect with Others
Reviewed by Craig Hamilton on June 1, 2008
You see a tear streaming down my cheek, and within seconds, your own eyes begin to well up. I witness someone about to get an injection, and my own arm tightens with anticipation. The experience of empathy is arguably one of the most profound and universal dimensions of what it means to be human. Yet as central as this experience is to the human story, empathy is a phenomenon that has long eluded scientific explanation. For all our advances in biology and neuroscience, one of life’s enduring mysteries has been: How is it that we seemingly autonomous, separate beings can be so deeply and instantaneously attuned to the inner experiences of others?
According to UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, that enigma is at last beginning to give up its secrets. In Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others, Iacoboni chronicles one of the most compelling neuroscientific breakthroughs in recent decades—and one which appears to hold the keys to understanding our emotional interconnectedness.
As with many great scientific advances, Iacoboni explains, this one happened rather by accident. A team of Italian scientists were observing the brain of a monkey performing basic motor tasks when something unexpected occurred: The brain areas that control basic hand movements began to fire as the monkey sat perfectly still merely watching the researcher picking up his pencil. As the implications began to sink in over repeated trials, the researchers realized they had come upon something extraordinary: the existence of neurons in primate brains that respond both when they are performing a task (or having an experience) and when they are simply watching another perform that task (or have that experience). They called them “mirror neurons.”
From that initial moment of discovery through every significant breakthrough in the fifteen years since, Iacoboni takes us on a page-turner of a journey into a burgeoning field of research with vast implications for our understanding of human social relations. In the new world of mirror neuron research, the notion that I can “feel your pain” is no longer a metaphor. Study after study suggests that our brains are wired so that we literally do feel one another’s pain, leading at least one researcher to use the term “Gandhi neurons” to describe them.
Popular science books written by scientists often tend to make for tough reading. One of the pitfalls of being a specialist of any kind is that one tends to fall out of touch with how uninformed about one’s chosen field the masses are. But with Mirroring People, Iacoboni joins the ranks of that handful of scientists-turned-popular-authors who are able to bridge that gap so naturally that they make the rest of us feel smart with them.
Indeed, one of the great contributions of this book is Iacoboni’s willingness to repeatedly venture outside the realm of strict science, helping to unpack the philosophical implications of the experiments he documents. Convinced that mirror neurons point to “the biological roots of intersubjectivity,” he writes: Unfortunately, philosophical and ideological indiviualistic positions especially dominant in our Western culture have made us blind to the fundamentally intersubjective nature of our own brains.”
Not surprisingly, at this early stage of research, speculations about the implications of mirror neurons abound. These mirrors in the brain are being looked to for everything from the keys to understanding (and curing) autism to the roots of our sense of self. For anyone who sees in mirror neuron research a sign of hope that mainstream science may be nudging closer to a paradigm of interconnectedness, rest assured that you are not alone. As Iacoboni writes in his closing words, “Our knowledge of the powerful neurobiological mechanisms underlying human sociality provides an invaluable resource for helping us determine how to reduce violent behavior, increase empathy, and open ourselves to other cultures without forgetting our own. We have evolved to connect deeply with other human beings. Our awareness of this fact can and should bring us even closer to one another.”