Book Review

Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others by Marco Iacoboni. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2008; 308 pages, ISBN 0-374-21017-9, hardcover, $25.00.

Is there a neurological basis for empathy?  The answer seems to lie in a new class of neurons discovered over the last fifteen years by an international team of researchers.  Called mirror neurons, these brain cells activate not only when we perform behavior but also when we observe the behavior of others, reproducing in our brain the same neuronal firing that is required to do what we merely observe.  By this means we are able to understand the actions, intentions, words, and emotions of others by experiencing in our own brain the stimulus required to produce these acts and intentions. 

One of the researchers, the author describes “the details of the empirical research on mirror neurons and the implications that flow from that research” (p. 259).  He discusses how these findings impact our understanding of such various fields as language acquisition, learning, psychotherapy, autism, addiction, violence, choice making, advertising, politics, and the development of our sense of self.   One of the strengths of the book is that he tells us the rationale and methods of the experiments, how their results were interpreted, and the further steps taken.  We see scientists at work dealing with findings that were often unanticipated and surprising.  Unfortunately, many of the experiments involve animals; however this has allowed researchers to determine how the brains of various animals are similar to and different from each other and from that of human beings regarding this brain system.

One implication of these neurological findings is that human beings learn by imitation – not only overt conscious imitation, but above all by unconscious imitation within the brain itself:  “It seems as if our brain is built for mirroring, and that only through mirroring – through the simulation in our brain of the felt experience of other minds – do we deeply understand what other people are feeling” (p. 126).  Iacoboni hypothesizes that “mirror neurons in the infant brain are formed by the interaction between self and other” (p. 134), and findings seem to bear out his hypothesis that our very sense of self is formed through these interactions.  Of interest are the results of experiments using mirrors to determine whether various animals can recognize themselves, the same experiment long used on human infants. 

The discovery of this new type of brain cell has practical applications in many fields. To cite just one: mimicking the activities of others seems crucial for social development and learning.  Those who care for infants are constantly encouraging them to imitate by reflecting their behavior – smiling when the baby smiles, repeating sounds, etc. – and rewarding the baby’s imitations.  In the case of autism, there is a lack in the infant of observation of the caregiver and a consequent lack of imitation.  Scans have shown that the parts of the brain with mirror neurons are underdeveloped in these children.  Using these findings, therapists have had success with new strategies, as the author reports:

“During seemingly spontaneous and playful interactions, the therapist starts to imitate the child’s gestures, vocalizations, and actions directed at toys.  Then the therapist invites the child to imitate her own behavior.  Children exposed to this kind of treatment during naturalistic interactions show clear benefits, and these benefits go well beyond imitation alone. . . .  Other social-communicative behaviors, such as language and pretend play, also show robust improvement.  The techniques designed by [Brooke] Ingersoll can also be taught to parents, who can use them at home while spontaneously interacting with their kids. . . .

“These techniques do not require any special technology and can be easily taught.  They could be disseminated within the community of parents of children with autism quite rapidly and reach a large number of affected children.  An awareness of the relationship between mirror neurons and imitation may promise potentially life-changing benefits for these children.” – pp. 182-3

We are not consciously aware of this mirroring process within our brain, and the author holds that pre-reflective activity of our brain, of which we are not conscious, has a much greater and more profound effect on our development, learning, actions, and choices than we perhaps would wish to believe.  We like to think of ourselves as able to be in conscious, rational control of ourselves; but this may not be as much the case as we think.  Experiments and studies seem to indicate that when our conscious reflective verbalization or awareness conflicts with our pre-reflective brain activity, the pre-conscious generally determines our behavior or choice.  The relation between these two brain “modes” is complex; for instance, one might think verbalizing our perceptions or actions would help consolidate them.  The opposite is true; “studies have shown that detailed verbal descriptions of various experiences impair memory,” a phenomenon called “verbal overshadowing” (p. 221).

Though occasionally slow paced, this book is a very worthwhile read, both for its clear explanation of important new discoveries and theories and for its window into the collegial way science today is actually practiced. – Sarah Belle Dougherty (November 2008)

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