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Viewpoint: Enrich student thinking through empathy

Have you ever gone to a movie and been brought to tears because of the story? Do you know someone who makes you happier just by being around them? Do you physically wince when you see someone get hurt? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have experienced an essential function of a group of brain cells called mirror neurons.

The name “mirror neuron” is derived from the way these brain cells function. These nerve cells fire when you are observing someone performing a task or exhibiting an emotion. These specialized neurons are stimulated to imitate, mimic or mirror the activity or emotion you are witnessing. They are both at the essence of how we learn, develop empathy and an emotional connection to others.

Our mirror neuron system helps us learn by imitating what we see as a form of practice or rehearsal. When we are working to learn a new task or concept, we imitate our teachers. Think about teaching someone how to tie a shoe. Simply explaining the process is insufficient in helping someone master the task. Showing them accesses the mirror neuron system. As the person watches the shoe being tied, mirror neurons are working to imitate the task by stimulating the appropriate neural networks needed to move your hands in the right way to tie the shoe.

Empathy or the ability to understand what another person is feeling or thinking is also dependent on the mirror neuron system. When you see someone who is happy, mad or sad, physiologically you do not have the ability to identify that emotion using your intellect or frontal lobe. The way we can tell mad from glad comes from our mirror neuron system. The mirror neurons fire and imitate the emotion by stimulating the appropriate neurological responses in your body to mimic the emotion. When you are around someone who is mad, your heart rate increases, breathing increases, you release adrenaline and you physically feel angry and recognize the emotion. It all happens in fractions of a second, but it starts with the mirror neurons. These neurons are connected to the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala. When they send the message to the amygdala, the cascade of processes to initiate the emotion is triggered. That’s why, when you watch a sad movie, you cry. Your mirror neurons are firing and sending messages to the amygdala to imitate sadness or crying. The more robust your mirror neuron system is, the stronger your emotional response and your ability to empathize.

Empathy is also useful in problem solving and working through differences of opinion. Understanding how someone developed their point of view or beliefs helps us to be more accepting and understanding of an opposing view. We are the culmination of our collective experiences and of our personal cultures. If we want to understand one another, we need to understand what each of us has been through and experienced in our lives. Sometimes it is hard to empathize with someone who may think completely different than we do, but we can train ourselves to be more empathetic. We can do this by working to imagine, in the greatest detail possible, how another person is feeling, or how they developed their beliefs. Some people are more empathetic than others, but we all can increase our empathy by actively working to truly understand each other’s point of view.

Part of our goal in enhancing the thinking of our students is to expand their ability to empathize with people who are different from themselves in their thinking, experiences and cultures. Great thinkers can see the world through other people’s eyes and use that knowledge to enhance their own thinking and to develop novel solutions to complex problems. I believe part of preparing our students for graduation is to help enrich their thinking and expand their point of view through cultivating their empathy for others and for new and unique thoughts. The careers of tomorrow will demand new thinking. I hope we instill a creative and critical problem-solving mindset in our students based on being able to use mirror neurons to learn and understand the world.