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Born To Be Good – Mirror Neurons Help Us Empathize

Several months ago, I was browsing through a bookstore inSeattle looking for something to read on my flight back across thecountry. After having spent eight hourson stage working to keep a mental step ahead of 250 smart executives, I wasreally looking for something mindless. Perhaps a murder mystery or maybe evensomething from the vampire genre, which seems to be expanding beyond alllogical propositions these days.

Several months ago, I was browsing through a bookstore inSeattle looking for something to read on my flight back across thecountry. After having spent eight hourson stage working to keep a mental step ahead of 250 smart executives, I wasreally looking for something mindless. Perhaps a murder mystery or maybe evensomething from the vampire genre, which seems to be expanding beyond alllogical propositions these days.

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

Iacoboni, a UCLA neurologist & neuroscientist, is aleading authority on “mirror neurons,” a recently discovered phenomenon thatsome experts predict will transform neuroscience similarly to the way thediscovery 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 aboutcertain actions or watch others make an action. What his research has found isthat we see other people as ourselves reflected as if in a mirror.

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

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

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

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

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Iacoboni calls these “neurons for a secular morality.”

He also says that “labels” are what drive people apart. Becausehumans tend to separate each other into groups, we lose some ability toempathize with people on a humanistic level.

Iacoboni performed a fascinating experiment where he and hiscolleagues showed Democrats and Republicans photographs of candidates duringthe 2004 election. Whenever someone saw an image of a politician in his or herown party, that individual’s mirror neurons fired strongly, and he or sheempathized with his or her fellow party members. It is easy for that person toimagine being that politician.

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

The implication of this sequence is significant. It meansthat our natural impulse is to empathize with others or, in the words ofIacoboni, “to create an immediate emotional connection with people.” It is only after we label someone asbelonging 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 weare all alike, we are all human, we all eat, we all cry.”

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

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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.

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About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique. Kaihan has delivered business strategy keynote speeches for organizations such as Motorola, Schering‐Plough, Colgate‐Palmolive, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, the Society of Human Resource Managers, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and The Asia Society

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