Making Friends: Insights on Friendship from the World’s Leading Experts - Pt. 4, Marco Iacoboni

Photo: kpgolfpro, CC0 Public Domain
Photo: kpgolfpro, CC0 Public Domain

Understanding Social Connectivity

This is the fourth installment in a series about how to make and keep friends. In each interview, we explore some facet of how people connect to each other, touching on themes like men’s friendship, unhealthy connections, and first impressions.

Today, we’re going to step back from discussing social interactions to take a closer look at our physical makeup―specifically, how the human body equips us to connect with others.

Meet Marco Iacoboni

Marco Iacoboni is Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He pioneered the research on mirror neurons, the “smart cells” in our brain that allow us to understand others. His research has been covered by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Economist, and major TV networks.

Smart Cells Connect Us in Ways We Might Not Expect

Sarah: You wrote a great book called Mirroring People that centers on mirror neurons or “smart cells” in our brain that help us understand each other. Can you give us a brief overview of how these mirror neurons work?

Marco: Mirror neurons are cells that activate in my brain in order to control my own actions, whenever I want to achieve a goal or express an emotion with my face or body. So, the firing of these cells is critical for my own behavior. Yet, and this is the surprising part, they also fire when I see someone else, say, you, making the same action or the same facial expression, even though I am not doing anything, just watching you. That’s why they are called mirror. It is as if by looking at your own behavior, I see myself reflected by a mirror.

Sarah: It’s amazing to me that these processes are going on without us even being aware of them. When someone’s mirror neurons are working properly, what benefits play out as they read the world around them?

Marco: The key adaptive advantage of mirror neurons is that they make it very simple, easy, effortless to connect with the minds of other people. The same brain cells that I use to achieve my intentions and express my emotions activate when I see you doing the same. Mirror neurons make empathy possible and make it also a fairly easy thing to accomplish. This is a concept that often people struggle with, because our idea of empathy is that it is a rather complex function. While there are many forms of empathy, the kind of natural connection with feel with other people, when we are with them, is something that most likely we wouldn’t easily achieve without properly functioning mirror neurons.

Sarah: Really interesting. This is related, but a little more specific. As a mom, I was fascinated by your writing on maternal empathy. Is empathy between mothers and their children even more developed than between other pairs of people? Are there any other relationships that tune into each other uniquely well? Soldiers, for example?

Marco: Any relation has the potential of tuning into each other uniquely well. One thing we have learned about the brain in the last few years is how plastic it is, how it can learn, even fairly late in life. Obviously, mothers and children have especially strong ties, and that was something that we could easily see in our brain imaging scanners. However, that kind of bonding can be achieved by any pair of fellow humans, as long as there is enough commitment to be attuned to the other person. We do know that mirror neurons learn, and being constantly (or very often) attuned to the other person is the best way to shape mirror neuron activity and create stronger emotional ties.

Sarah: What about the challenges of subjectivity? We can do a pretty good job of detecting someone’s intentions or predicting behavior, but our inferences aren’t always correct, are they? What have your studies discovered about that?

Marco: Empathic accuracy is not something we have studied extensively. In general, we are good at detecting others’ intentions. However, as you say, in more complex situations our empathic accuracy can be challenged. We do need to remind ourselves, though, that these situations are fairly rare. In these rare cases, the cooperation of our emotional empathy (provided by mirror neurons) and our more cognitive capacity to empathize with others, should help us in being more accurate about the mental states of other people.

Sarah: I see. That makes sense. I think it’s obvious from what you’ve said already that the implications of this research are far reaching. For example, mirror neuron underline our interconnectedness with other human beings. That being the case, it might even make sense to allow neuroscience to influence public policy one day. What is one example of a neuroscience driven policy you could imagine that might benefit society?

Marco: Well, I would say there are at least two that come immediately to mind. One has to do with empathy itself. One thing that we know about empathy is that it dramatically drops for people that do not belong to your social group. It is unclear why this is the case. We do have some hypotheses and are doing some work on it. However, one thing that we know about social groups is that they are malleable. I can think of myself as Italian, or European, or simply a human being. I can think of myself as a brain mapper, a human systems neuroscientist, a neuroscientist, or simply a scientist. The more we think of ourselves in more inclusive terms, the easier it will be to empathize with others. Yet the public discourse in our society seems built to divide, to create more factions between people, rather than focusing of what we have in common. This would be a fairly easy policy to implement, as long as we agreed on it. And the benefits would be incredibly high.

Another one has to do with weapons. There is plenty of neuroscience data that show that evolution has selected in the brain functional mechanisms to detect affordances for action. It is as if our brain actively scans the environment in order to trigger motor plans that the environment facilitates. Furthermore, other evidence shows that during social interactions we tend to move from a more reflective kind of behavior to a more reflexive one. There are well studied brain mechanisms and systems that produce that shift. That is, we think a little less during social interactions. So, now you got a brain ready to act and in a state that is more reflexive than reflective. You throw guns into the picture, what do you think is going to happen? Someone is going to shoot and someone will be shot. We could also easily change this, as long as we understand these very simple and yet powerful brain mechanisms.

Read the next post in this series on friendship here.

Special thanks to Marco Iacoboni for taking the time to share her insights with Huffington Post readers this week. Check back next week for another installment in the Making Friends series. Or check out Truth or Dare: The Podcast That Boosts Your Social Health.

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