Mirroring People The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others

Marco Iacoboni




Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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What accounts for the remarkable ability to get inside another person's head—to interpret what they're thinking and feeling? "Mind reading" is at the very heart of what it means to be human, creating a bridge between self and others that is fundamental to communication and to the development of culture and society. But until recently, scientists didn't understand what in the brain makes it possible.

This has all changed in the last decade. Marco Iacoboni, a leading neuroscientist whose work has been covered in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal, explains the groundbreaking research into mirror neurons, the "smart cells" in our brain that allow us to understand others. From imitation to morality, from learning to addiction, from political affiliations to consumer choices, mirror neurons seem to have properties that are relevant to all these aspects of social cognition. As The New York Times reports: "The discovery is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, autism and psychotherapy."

Mirroring People is the first book for the general reader on this revolutionary look at the science that explains the innate human ability to understand and mirror others.


Praise for Mirroring People

"Accessible, entertaining and far-reaching about the practical implications of the discovery [of mirror neurons]."—Christopher F. Chabris, The Wall Street Journal

"In Mirroring People, Iacoboni chronicles one of the most compelling neuroscientific breakthroughs in recent decades—and one which appears to hold the keys to understanding our emotional interconnectedness . . . Popular science books written by scientists often tend to make for tough reading. One of the pitfalls of being a specialist of any kind is that one tends to fall out of touch with how uninformed about one's chosen field the masses are. But with Mirroring People, Iacoboni joins the ranks of that handful of scientists-turned-popular-authors who are able to bridge that gap so naturally that they make the rest of us feel smart with them. Indeed, one of the great contributions of this book is Iacoboni's willingness to repeatedly venture outside the realm of strict science, helping to unpack the philosophical implications of the experiments he documents."—Craig Hamilton, Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness

"People cry when they watch sad movies or wince when they see athletes fall. This sense of shared experience is thought to be at the core of human society. How empathy physically happens, however, wasn't known until neuroscientists in Italy stumbled upon a possible explanation 15 years ago. Iacoboni, one of those pioneers at the University of Parma, describes how he and his colleagues initially sought to find which neurons fired when a monkey moved its hands. They attached tiny electrodes to individual cells in the monkeys' brains, and the monitor buzzed when the monkeys snatched a peanut. Yet once when a lab assistant was preparing for the experiment and moving around peanuts, the neurons in the wired-up monkey began to fire—the same neurons that fired when the monkey itself picked up the peanuts. More experiments confirmed that a set of neurons fired both when monkeys performed an action and when they saw the action performed. The team named the cells mirror neurons, and studies have since extended to humans. Iacoboni, now at UCLA, explains ongoing research on how the neurons might account for group behavior and how dysfunctional mirror neurons might lead to disorders such as autism. The history of mirror neuron research is short enough to be clearly described for the nonspecialist reader, and its future exciting enough to attract anyone interested in human interaction. A book by a top researcher will be a boon to anyone wishing to separate what is actually known about mirror neurons from the hype."—Amy Maxmen, Science News

"Mirroring People is the first popular account of the research behind one of the most exciting discoveries in contemporary science: mirror neurons. Explaining how these brain cells might change our notion of free will, act as neural precursors to language, and shed light on human empathy, Iacoboni nimbly takes us through the experiments that led to these findings. These aren't mind-reading cells, he argues, but they do provide insight into the predictive abilities of the brain."—Seed magazine

"Mirror neurons, which fire not only when you perform an action but also when you watch others perform the same action, are hot new territory for investigation. In this account of mirror neuron research, Marco Iacoboni explains the role they play in group cohesion—and so how they will help us understand everything from why violent video games are dangerous to why we respond to TV adverts. Iacoboni, a colleague of the original research team, is a leading light in the field and talks with an authority and casualness that could only come from the inside."—New Scientist

"A fascinating account of an unexpected discovery that is changing the way that psychologists and neuroscientists think about everything from language to social interaction."—Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness

"Marco Iacoboni has written a fascinating and wonderfully accessible account of one of the most exciting developments in recent neuroscience—the discovery of 'mirror neurons.' If you want to know more about the biological basis of empathy, morality, social cognition and self-awareness, read this book."—Sam Harris, founder of The Reason Project and author of the New York Times bestsellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

"Those of us who thirty years ago began to speculate about the social brain never guessed what riches were in store. Iacoboni's book is both a thrilling account of how research on mirror neurons is revolutionising our understanding of inter-subjectivity, and a passionate manifesto for what he calls 'existential neuroscience.' Mirroring People does for the story of mirror neurons what The Double Helix did for DNA."—Nicholas Humphrey, author of Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness

"A superb introduction to one of the great discoveries of contemporary science: we come wired for empathy and cooperation, and evolution has equipped us to care, not just compete. Think of evolution as the survival of the most caring and best cared for. This is a book you must read."—George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain

"This book vividly conveys the current excitement in the field of mirror neurons and it should provide a valuable antidote to 'Neuron envy'—a widely prevalent syndrome in psychology. The author explores the broader implications of the research for understanding the neural basis of human nature."—V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., PhD, Director, Center for brain and cognition, University of California, San Diego

"[A] look at mirror neurons, specialized brain cells that the author believes enable us to empathize with others. Mirror neurons are the chameleon cells of the brain, explains Iacoboni. They help us 'read' the actions and expressions of others, allowing us to understand the intentions and feelings of people around us. Numerous experiments have revealed that mirror neurons 'fire' when we observe someone else taking an action or expressing an intention or feeling we recognize. For example, if you see someone reaching for an apple, your grasping and apple-eating mirror neurons will fire. When you see someone smiling, your mirror neurons map out a 'mental plan' for smiling yourself. In effect, mirror neurons enable us to 'imitate' the act of smiling, and give us the ability to feel empathy for the smiling person in front of us. The more a person imitates others, Iacoboni argues, the more empathetic he or she is likely to be . . . the author argues . . . that the science of mirror neurons should be put to use reducing violence, controlling addiction and introducing Americans to other cultures."—Kirkus Reviews

"To read this marvelously accessible book is to share Iacoboni's enthusiasm . . . A book full of wonder and promise."—Booklist

"Pioneer researcher Iacoboni balances technical detail with engaging historical perspective, humor, and idealism in this exploration of discoveries made through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In the past 15 years, fMRI has jolted psychology and philosophy as well as neuroscience, and this book explores implications for language, empathy, sense of self, autism, control and inhibition, violence and drug abuse, and advertising and politics. Why is conversation easier for most of us than speechmaking? Do we learn to imitate or imitate to learn? The new findings, Iacoboni reports, replace some older theories of mind and society with new emphasis on the self as a product of relationships. Iacoboni argues that dramatized violence fosters violence and that negative political ads work at the cost of disaffection from politics in general. The human brain—the most complicated thing in the known universe—becomes approachable for general readers thanks to ingenious research explained by a versatile, caring, optimistic teacher. This model of good and useful science is an essential purchase for cutting-edge psychology and philosophy collections."—E. James Lieberman, School Library Journal

"How do we know what others are thinking and feeling? Why do we weep at movies? UCLA neuroscientist Iacoboni introduces readers to the world of mirror neurons and what they imply about human empathy, which, the author says, underlies morality. Mirror neurons allow us to interpret facial expressions of pain or joy and respond appropriately. 'Thanks to these neurons,' Iacoboni writes, '[w]e have empathy for . . . fictional characters—we know how they're feeling' because the feeling is reproduced in us. Mirror neurons also help us learn by imitating, from newborns who instinctively copy facial gestures to adults learning a new skill. The author cites studies suggesting that when mirror neurons don't work properly, as in autism, encouraging imitative behavior, or 'social mirroring,' can help. More ominously, Iacoboni sees mirror neurons as implicated in addiction and finds possible implications for how we react to consumer and even political ads. Iacoboni's expansive style and clear descriptions make for a solid introduction to cutting-edge neurobiology."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Marco Iacoboni

  • Marco Iacoboni is a neurologist and neuroscientist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, where he is director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Laboratory at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. His brain imaging studies have pioneered the investigation of the mirror neuron system in humans. He has appeared on Good Morning America, the Early Show, and Morning Edition, among other TV and radio programs.

  • Marco Iacoboni Jennifer Roper
    Marco Iacoboni