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Several months ago, I was browsing through a bookstore in Seattle looking for something to read on my flight back across the country.  After having spent eight hours on stage working to keep a mental step ahead of 250 smart executives, I was really looking for something mindless. Perhaps a murder mystery or maybe even something from the vampire genre, which seems to be expanding beyond all logical propositions these days. 

But I could not resist taking a detour, and there I bumped into a concept that beautifully unifies and clarifies so much of what I cover here in my blog about narratives and ethonomics.  I left Ann Rice on the shelf and instead boarded my plane in the company of Dr. Marco Iacoboni‘s newest book, Mirroring People:  The New Science of How we Connect with Others. 

Iacoboni, a UCLA neurologist & neuroscientist, is a leading authority on "mirror neurons," a recently discovered phenomenon that some experts predict will transform neuroscience similarly to the way the discovery of DNA transformed biology.  You see, Iacoboni studies a system in the brain that is called the "mirror neuron system," which activates when we perform certain actions, think about certain actions or watch others make an action. What his research has found is that we see other people as ourselves reflected as if in a mirror.

I was able to convince Iacoboni to spend an hour with me discussing mirror neurons and their implications. I found that because of the innate responses of humans’ mirror neurons, we are wired to be empathetic and good.

As Iacoboni says, "Most people are like you. Overall, every human is similar. If I see someone smiling, then I smile. If I see someone crying, then I know exactly what they are going through because my mirror neurons are firing in my brain as if I am actually smiling or crying."

It is the immediate connection between people on an emotional level that makes mirror neurons so fascinating. Iacoboni’s research shows that I will immediately understand a situation or an individual’s feelings because my mirror neurons pretend that I am going through the same thing.

The traditional humanistic view is that we are all individualists, and we only care about ourselves and our self-preservation. The church teaches that we are all innately bad, and that through self-control and diligence we can become good. The discovery of mirror neurons clearly shows that this isn’t the case, and instead, we are wired to feel empathy. We are wired to be good to each other.

Iacoboni calls these "neurons for a secular morality."

He also says that "labels" are what drive people apart. Because humans tend to separate each other into groups, we lose some ability to empathize with people on a humanistic level.

Iacoboni performed a fascinating experiment where he and his colleagues showed Democrats and Republicans photographs of candidates during the 2004 election. Whenever someone saw an image of a politician in his or her own party, that individual’s mirror neurons fired strongly, and he or she empathized with his or her fellow party members. It is easy for that person to imagine being that politician. 

When that same individual recognized the image of someone in the opposite party, Iacobni’s team saw that a remarkable sequence of activity was triggered.  The observer’s mirror neurons fired first, indicating a natural empathy. Then his or her logical conscious mind kicked in and suppressed the mirror neurons. In other words, observers started initially to empathize but then quelled this natural reaction by logical thought. 

The implication of this sequence is significant. It means that our natural impulse is to empathize with others or, in the words of Iacoboni, "to create an immediate emotional connection with people."   It is only after we label someone as belonging to a different group, as being Republican or Democrat for example, that we consciously force away that emotional connection.  As Iacoboni says, "The good news is that we are all alike, we are all human, we all eat, we all cry." 

This has a profound implication for business and sports, as well as humanity as a whole. This means that we naturally want to belong and connect with others. And since we naturally are empathetic and good toward the people we connect with, then that means our innate tendency is to be good.

The priest who may have told you as a child that all humans are innately bad was wrong. Science says we are wired to be good. This is why I think the new breed of ethonomic business thinkers is going to change the way we see capitalistic competition. Companies that I've covered before, like Satori Capital and Husk Power Systems, are just the beginning to a new path of using our natural empathetic instincts to bring a better life to everyone.