Last winter, my friend Heleen flew from California to Holland to surprise her father at his 70th birthday party. She sent me a video of her unexpected entrance, which I watched over and over again. Each time Heleen wrapped her arms around her father, I found myself flooded with happiness. I dabbed my eyes along with the other guests.
I can experience a tearful joy just by watching a video of this surprise reunion because of what neuroscientists call mirror neurons. These special brain cells fire not only when we perform an action, but also when we observe the action being performed by another. Our mirror neurons are why we return a smile or wince when we watch someone else stub their toe. Or why we feel it keenly when our favorite team loses. Again and again and again.
This is also why the You Tube video below, which is titled ‘The Best Video You Will See This Year,” has received over three million views so far.
No doubt about it, mirror neurons are what connect us as humans. Advertisers are especially keen to the power of these little brain cells. They have been manipulating mirror neurons since well before 1994 when these cells were discovered. I’ve always been a sucker for the long-running Folgers ad below. Back in 1985, when it first aired, I’d practically sob each time the mother said, “Peter! Oh, you’re home.”
Even though we are more savvy consumers than we were thirty years ago, advertisers still know how to work our mirror neurons. We watch a sequence of sweaty young men and women working out, and we feel their power and confidence. Subconsciously, we will associate that good feeling with the Nike brand. In the same way, we will empathize with the poor guy who picked the wrong home owners insurance (and we will know not to make the same mistake), wonder if that car will make us as attractive and carefree as the handsome couple driving along the coastline, and somehow associate resolved erectile dysfunction with relaxing vacations in the Bahamas.
But what are the implications of mirror neurons other than a powerful marketing strategy?
I think that being able to feel what others are feeling helps to keep humankind from imploding upon itself. Mirror neurons balance the “survival of the fittest” instinct. They connect us. They make us more compassionate.
Watch this video from the 2000 Summer Olympics. In the preliminary heat of the 100m freestyle event, two of the three swimmers were eliminated, leaving Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea to swim alone. The thing is, Moussambani wasn’t much of a swimmer. He was chosen to represent his country because he was one of the few citizens who knew how to swim, and he trained in a Holiday Inn swimming pool. Initially, the commentators and crowd were laughing at him, but when Moussambani doggedly continued to swim despite showing signs of fatigue, there was a notable shift from those watching (at 2:40 into the video).
There were many outstanding athletic feats from the Sydney Olympics, but the most memorable moment for me was watching Moussambani complete his race. And hearing the crowd turn their jeering into cheering as they mirrored his determined spirit.
But as much as mirror neurons connect us, their discovery raises all kinds of questions about how what we view affects us. When moviegoers watch scores of people being killed onscreen without much reaction from either the heros and villains, do viewers learn to desensitize violence? Is prolonged exposure to graphically violent video games affecting our kids?
“Mirror neurons provide a plausible neurobiological mechanism that explains why being exposed to media violence leads to imitative violence,” explains neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni in an interview with Scientific American magazine. “What should we do about it? Although it is obviously hard to have a clear and definitive answer, it is important to openly discuss this issue and hopefully reach some kind of “societal agreement” on how to limit media violence without limiting (too much) free speech.”
Interestingly, one of the bestselling book series currently on the market is The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. This series explores what can happen when we allow ourselves to be desensitized to violence. Collin’s first book was recently made into a movie. I won’t be able to see it, just reading the books disturbed my dreams for many night, but my hope is that in amongst the violence, the message won’t get lost: We need to take some responsibility for these powerful mirror neurons of ours, and give some thought not only to what we watch, but how we respond to what we see.