Mirror Neurons: The key to empathy and attunement

Mirror Neurons

One of the greatest neuro-discoveries of the last decade came when scientists accidently discovered mirror neurons. You probably remember from 7th grade biology that a neuron is a brain cell. Brain cells transmit electrical and chemical signals, and connect to others to form networks (Scientists estimate there are one hundred billion neurons in the human brain). For hundreds of years, scientists thought the brain was rigid and permanent. They also assumed the brain could never grow new cells. Only in the last decade have scientists discovered the brain is pliable, plastic, moldable, and that the brain can grow.

A team of Italian researchers placed electrodes in the front of a monkey’s brain in order to study the neurons involved as the monkey cracked a peanut and put it in his mouth. During a break, one of the scientists cracked a peanut for himself, and the monkey’s brain made the same audible sound; the exact neurons fired when the monkey watched the action as when the monkey did it himself. Thus, the neurons “mirror” the behavior of another, as though the observer himself were doing the activity. For more on Mirror Neurons watch this amazing video on NOVA (once you get to this page, click just below the picture of the people in the middle of the page).

All this to say it’s important to spend time around others who are behaving and acting in ways that you want to mirror and have mirrored in your life. Your brain automatically “picks up” signals from those around you in ways you might never consciously realize. In fact, you become like those you spend time with, so it pays to be intentional our choices in friends and mentors.

“What’s that smell?”


“Oh honey, no we can’t get you a butterfly needle,” condescended the woman who was preparing to draw blood from my son’s arm; part of a monthly routine for being on his acne medication.


The mama-bear instinct in me came forward:  “The last time we were here, that’s what they used.  They said the needle was smaller.”


The phlebotomist dismissed me and continued her work. 


I recently read a similar story posted on Today’s Christian Women blog http://blog.todayschristianwoman.com/editors/2009/02/a_new_attitude.html and it got me thinking…


How is it that two people who perform the same job, can treat people so differently?


The first time we went to the lab, the tech realized how scared of needles my son was, so she gently laid him back on the cot, and engaged him in a jovial conversation. She distracted him, and at the same time she honored his fear by saying this happens to lots of people.  She told him she would use the butterfly needle – the same type of needle used for infants.  But she did it in a way that comforted rather than embarrassed him. 


On our second trip to the lab, the technician scoffed at our requests, and proceeded to make my son feel shamed for asking.   Two different people.  Two very different responses to my son’s fear.


Every single moment, people have opportunities to impact the world and to emulate Jesus.


One of the small things I try to do is ask anyone who serves me how their day is going.  They almost always seem stunned that anyone would care. (I’ve heard New Yorkers hate people like us because we slow things down).  When I asked a friend who works at Starbucks what his “pet peeve” was, he said it’s when he is friendly to people who aren’t friendly back.


I wish I could always remember to treat people gently.  Unfortunately I get caught up in the importance of my life and fall short a lot of the time.   


What about you?  What are the small ways you try to touch the world for Jesus? 


Did you know that disciple Paul said that we leave a fragrance wherever we go?


“Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God…”

II Corinthians 2:15



The Importance of Friends – Tips from the dog park


One national survey reports that one in three people in America are living with extreme stress. 


Stress can come in all forms: heavy workloads, daily traffic, taking care of others, financial worries, health concerns, etc.   You may not always be able to change your stressful situation, but you can find ways to minimize its negative impact on your life.


It’s a well-known fact that social support is critical to good mental health, because it provides you with a sense of belonging, self-worth, and security. 


People may not realize how important a support network is until they find themselves without one. A network of support is one of the reasons I’m thankful for my church.


Today, I went to the off-leash doggie park with my son and his friend Emily, and was reminded how awesome it is to have others involved in your life.  As I watched the dogs play, I came up with five tips for building a healthy support system:


Give and Take – As the dogs played tug-of-war with rope, I considered how important it is not to be a full-time taker.  Don’t just talk, listen.   Don’t wait for your friends to call you, call them once in a while.  Do kind things for others, and they will be there when you need them.  At the park, people are encouraged to bring a jug of water to share with all the dogs. 


Be Honest – If you don’t want to play, politely say so.   Don’t growl, or bite.  Simply tell them you’re not in the mood today.  People respect others who don’t make up excuses and who have healthy boundaries.


Find Things in Common – I was surprised by all the varieties of dogs at the park.  Some were so large they could barely lumber up the steps.  Others were so small their owners had to make sure they didn’t get stepped on.  But one thing the dogs had in common was that they wanted to run, jump, and make friends.  One of my psychology teachers used to tell me that people are all different; yet we are more in common than different.


Find Positive People – We become like those we hang around.  I didn’t see any unfriendly dogs at the park. That’s because grouchy owners and grouchy dogs don’t go to the dog park.  Find the types of people you like to be around, and go there often.


Take Risks –Did you notice the picture of me standing in the park?  Ten years ago, this would have been my version of Hell.  That’s because I had a dog phobia after suffering a severe bite from a German Shepherd. Instead of staying home because life hurts you, take the risk to get back out there.  It’s so much more fun!


 “I have told you this so that you may be filled with My Joy, yes, your Joy will overflow.”

John 15:11