In our vastly complicated brain we have all kinds of neurons or brain cells. There are some 86 million such cells. Among them are social cells of different kinds, some of which are tabulated as mirror neurons. These were discovered by accident about 25 years ago when a group of Italian scientists under the direction of Giacomo Rizzolatti were searching for which specific motor cells in monkey brains controlled what manual muscular activity. When a staff assistant picked up something to eat, the implanted electrode in the monkey’s brain fired. The monkey physically sensed what the staff assistant was doing. This started research in human brains for “mirror neurons”, those social neurons that help us feel and recognize what other people feel or intend to do.
This leads us to learn more about empathy, that virtue of compassion and sympathy that we express when we reach out to others. This is the neurological basis of our relations with one another. It can be positive when we smile at one another in a warm regard or feel the pain of another in a moment of someone’s hurt. It could also be negative when there is a defensive reaction to a harsh word or look.
In short, we can anticipate what another person feels or thinks, given our ability to read body language, the other person’s meaningful movement or facial expression. This starts in the prefrontal cortex and moves through other areas of the brain.
When our mirror neurons respond to positive human activity like a smile or warm greeting, we feel good. This positive feeling stirs up a chemical reaction within us that warms us physically. It’s the work of the polypeptide hormone oxytocin coming from the pituitary gland. This is the “love” chemical of any affirming behavior between people. This is what we feel when we receive a complement or even a hug, giving us a sense of well-being.
On the other hand, when our mirror neurons pick up a negative vibe from a frown or biting word, we feel a painful hormone called cortisol. This is the fear hormone of the adrenal glands, because the pain of negativity triggers stress.
When we are conscious of the power of our words and gesture, it makes sense to realize our impact on others for good or bad. We tell our children to be nice. As leaders, we need to remind ourselves to be nice. “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” A smile physically warms the heart. There so much meaning in a heartfelt comment.
Our mirror neurons can be so helpful and even quite hurtful. It makes so much sense to do unto others as you would have them do to you.