May 4, 2011 9:46am
Posted in: Posts

In Wired to Care, we discuss how special cells in our brains called mirror neurons allow us to experience what other people are feeling — not just in an imagined way, either. Repeated tests have shown that both people performing an activity and people observing an activity experience identical brain activity.

And new research shows that this goes far beyond our minds. Researchers in Europe recently went to the Spanish village of San Pedro Manrique to look at how mirror neurons respond to a particularly extreme physical test — ritualized fire-walking. For those of you who have never had the pleasure (don’t worry, we haven’t either), this consists of walking 23 feet along a bed of blazing oak coals. This tradition has gone on in San Pedro for time immemorial, every June 23 in recognition of the Summer Solstice.

The researchers wanted to see how the ritual truly affected the community. Not just from an anthropological or cultural standpoint, but from a biological one. So they outfitted the firewalkers with heart-rate monitors, and they did the same for those merely observing. What they learned was astonishing. Family members of fire-walkers and other long-time residents of the village had almost exactly the same heartbeats as the people walking across the coals. The same peaks, the same valleys, and the same pace. Tourists who were there to view an oddity, however, were out of sync.

The empathic implications of this are quite remarkable. When we view someone else as being like us, whether through family ties, friendship, or simple identification, we are capable of literally syncing our physiology to them — feeling what they are feeling. When the fire-walker conquers danger, all of his observers do, too. Conversely, when we view other people as tourists do, we don’t really feel what’s going on with them — we see novelty and we don’t really get it.

The challenge for companies is to truly identify with the people they hope to serve, not to see them as novelties. When you can get inside their heads, it’s remarkable what you can learn.

Via New York Times.

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