September 17, 2008 8:07pm
Posted in: Excerpts from the Book

It’s often not possible or not enough to hire your customers. To continue to grow and prosper, you have to step outside of yourself and walk in someone else’s shoes.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik with Pete Mortensen, copyright 2009 Jump Associates.

The human nervous system is one of the most complex structures in our bodies. Many of its mysteries have yet to be fully understood. One thing neuroscientists are reasonably sure of, however, is that whenever we make a conscious action, a specific set of nerve cells called motor neurons light up. These special neurons have an intimate relationship with the muscles that we consciously control – not our heart or our lungs, but the muscles that we associate with action, such as our biceps, triceps, and hamstrings. So, for example, if you turn this page in the book, motor neurons receive the message from your brain that you want to move your right hand toward the corner of the page, grasp the paper and pull gently to the left. While you turn the page, the motor neurons transmit this message to the muscle cells that do the heavy lifting.

What motor neurons can’t do is actually make the decision to turn the page in the first place. Before we can motor, something needs to send the signal that we want to do something. And that begins in our brains, far from the muscles that motor neurons are connected to. In the front of the brain is a region called the premotor cortex. It’s the area where thinking that precedes action takes place. If you have the thought that you might like to turn a page in this book, the neurons in your premotor cortex become active and prepare to send the signal to the motor neurons. The human nervous center is so sophisticated and optimized for action that this happens nearly instantaneously. It doesn’t take a few seconds for you to reach for the page. Thought and action are so inseparable that a rote activity can often feel like a genuinely thoughtless act. But it’s not. We have to think about doing something before we can do it. The premotor cortex is one of the most important parts of the human brain. It adds a level of consideration and intention to our actions that allows us to think through the meaning and impacts of our decisions before we take action.

In the mid-1990s, a team of neuroscientists in Italy wanted to better understand how our brains work when we take action. To that end, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese, Luciano Fadiga, and Leonardo Fogassi set up a laboratory to study the brains of macaque monkeys. Like most primates, macaques have brains that are similar to ours, only smaller. The scientists ran wires into the premotor cortices of the macaques in the study so that whenever the monkeys picked up an object, a computer would record their brains’ activity. When a monkey reached for a banana, a certain group of neurons lit up. When the monkey reached for a block, a different set lit up. When he reached for a peanut, an entirely different group of neurons lit up.

One day, one of the neuroscientists, Fogassi, walked into the lab and picked up a peanut. One of the monkeys watched Fogassi intently. And in that moment when Fogassi picked up the peanut, the neurons in the monkey’s brain lit up in the same way they had when the monkey had picked up the peanut himself. Logically, this made no sense at all. Fogassi had picked up the peanut, so only his premotor cortex should have lit up, not the monkey’s. But as he watched Fogassi, the monkey’s brain reacted as if he were picking up the peanut, too. Intrigued but perplexed, Fogassi and his colleagues ran the experiment several times. They picked up other objects as the monkeys watched, and in each case, the monkeys’ brains reacted as though they were performing the actions themselves. This was new. Something in the monkeys’ brains was equating the actions of others with their own.

The neuroscientists called their discovery “mirror neurons” because they allow us to replicate in our heads what we see other people doing. Remarkably, mirror neurons not only light up when we perform an action, but also when we watch someone else perform an action. If you turn a page in a book, a specific set of mirror neurons lights up. If you watch someone else turn a page, the same set of mirror neurons lights up. And that’s not all. Incredibly, even if someone just describes page-turning to you, a similar set of mirror neurons will light up. As the Italian neuroscientists continued their research, they discovered that everything we do, see others do, or hear described to us is ultimately governed by and filtered through our mirror neurons. This makes mirror neurons incredibly important for learning. When you watch someone else expertly dribble a basketball, your mirror neurons start to help you learn how to get better at it yourself. On a subconscious level, we learn just by watching.

The most incredible power of mirror neurons, however, is their ability to pick up on tacit information about other people. They do more than help you learn; they help you experience other people’s lives. Mirror neurons are the reason that when you watch a gory movie, you wince at any acts of violence – your brain reacts as though you’re getting attacked. Our brains ultimately experience other people’s actions and feelings in the same way that we experience our own. If someone yawns around us, we become more likely to yawn because our mirror neurons put us in the shoes of the yawner. If someone trips and falls down, we rush to their aid because we feel how much it must hurt to fall down. It even works for less concrete actions. If you look across the room and see someone with a disgusted look on their face, you can feel disgusted yourself. If someone is smiling and laughing, you’re more likely to smile and laugh. And if someone else is suffering, you will, too.

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