Inquiring Minds
9:37 am
Wed December 15, 2010

Inquiring Minds - Mirror Neurons

Flagstaff, AZ – When you smile, I smile. When you feel sad, I feel sad. NAU Psychology Professor Chad Woodruff says our ability to mirror other peoples' emotions may be all in the neurons.

This is Inquiring Minds. . .insights from the campus of Northern Arizona University.

Mirror neurons are social neurons. Social neuroscientist Chad Woodruff says they fire when we express an emotion or a movement, like a laugh or a wink. But they also fire when we watch someone else do that. How well they fire may affect our level of empathy.

Not all of us respond to non-verbal cues with the same level of intensity. For most of us, emotions like joy or sorrow are easy to read. But people with social impairments, such as autism, have trouble understanding what other people are feeling.

With one child in 110 now affected by autism, Woodruff's findings may well change millions of lives.

He wants to know if those mirrors in the brain are shattered in some of us, or simply not reflecting as well as they should.

By measuring the brain-electrical impulses of autistic children, researchers are studying whether under-active mirror neurons can be trained to respond in a more socially adaptive way.

This uncharted research may lead to a breakthrough for those with social impairments, increasing their ability to understand and express feelings.

So what if the science of social neurons could radically change behavior? Would criminals feel more compassion for their victims? Could the pain of social awkwardness be avoided altogether?

Woodruff suggests higher-functioning mirror neurons could be reflected in a nicer society; raising the level of empathy, training us to be more tolerant and maybe even more pleasant to one another.