Walk for a Moment in His Shoes

Walk for a moment in my shoes
                         Indian proverb

 

Different cultures around the world have a very similar and wise old saying “Try to put on his shoes” or “Walk a mile in my shoes” as an advice to understand what the other is feeling, to be empathetic, and as a first step for trying to solve conflicts.

Until now, the possibility of putting ourselves in “another person’s shoes” “or walk in his shoes” had no scientific base. This extraordinary human capacity to feel and understand what others are feeling, to be empathetic, has been one of the most intriguing aspects of being human. Now empathy as a process has a scientific base and its possible thanks to a group of brain neurons called “mirror neurons”.

In 1996 a group of neuroscientists lead by Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma (Italy) found out about a group of brain neurons, later called “mirror neurons”, that now are proven to be the source of empathy, social learning and many other functions that makes us the kind of human beings we are.  Recently at a www.ted.com talk famous neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran referred to them as “the neurons that shaped our civilization”. [1]
Mirror neurons, it seems, are of the utmost importance in the human mind, and on the tip of the collective psychological tongue. “It’s going to make a big change,” says neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, University of California, Los Angeles, of the discovery’s impact on psychology. “Psychological studies started with the idea that a solitary mind looks at the world in a detached way. Mirror neurons tell us we’re literally in the minds of other people.” “Our social dimension would be completely destroyed” without mirror neurons, Iacoboni says. “The only way I could understand you would be by complicated mechanisms. It would be a very different world.”[2]

The purpose of this article is to invite you to think about the new reality proven by science: our brain is built to be empathetic towards others, it is in our biology to feel and understand what others are feeling, and empathy as we know could be the first step towards conflict resolution.

How mirror neurons appeared on scene.

This extraordinary finding was, as some of the major scientific discoveries, a result of luck and hard work.  Giacomo Rizzolatti´s and his team were working with Macaca Nemestrina, a kind of monkey used in many scientific experiments around the world. They studied a part of the monkey´s brain that we humans shared with them that is called F5.  F5 contains millions of neurons that are in charge of “codify” specific motor actions such as: holding, grapping, tearing, and specially the motion of taking food and place it in the mouth to feed ourselves. One lucky day between experiments, the neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese was walking through the lab and saw one of the monkeys sitting in a chair waiting to get the assignment of a new task. Suddenly Vittorio took something with his hand, he remembers it was a nut, and then heard the sound on the computer connected to the monkey´s brain, a sound that came from sector F5 of the monkey’s brain neurons. But strangely, the monkey was sitting without doing anything or touching anything with his hands, although the motor neuron related to the act of grabbing objects was activated on the computer.

Then Vittorio grabbed a peanut, and then ate an ice cream and the same happened: the sector F5 on the monkey´s brain was activated as if the monkey himself took and ate the food.
At first the scientists thought that this was only a simple imitation system of the monkey.  But then after multiple studies and experiments done since the findings of the mirror neurons scientist had come to the conclusion that it transcends the field of pure neurophysiology. The mirror system of the brain allows making our own the actions, sensations and emotions of others, what we commonly know as empathy.  [3]   

The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.  “We are exquisitely social creatures,” Dr. Rizzolatti said. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. When you see me pull my arm back, as if to throw the ball, you also have in your brain a copy of what I am doing and it helps you understand my goal. Because of mirror neurons, you can read my intentions. You know what I am going to do next.” He continued: “And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling.” [4]

Read the rest of the article here.

                        author

Mauricio Hernández

Mauricio Hernández Sarti, is a mediator and attorney based in Mexico City. Manager of one of the first programs to mediate conflicts between groups of students and teachers of graduate program in Mexico at Universidad del Valle de Mexico, by a technique he calls “The mediation Fish Bowl”, that provides… MORE >

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