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UCLA Scientist Explores Human Empathy

Friday, December 19, 2014

Human empathy has been the subject of many recent studies that explore the way in which individuals reflect the moods and feelings – and even coughing – of others. Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who immigrated to the United States from Rome in 1999, when he joined the faculty of the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA, has been at the forefront of empathy research. It turns out that empathy is the key to spreading gloom – or cheer.
Perhaps best known as the author of Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others, Iacoboni is currently Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Center. His work has included the study of so-called mirror neurons, which are brain cells that help us to process and interpret the emotions that other people are experiencing.
The way mirror neurons work, however, is something of a two-way street. They allow us to feel happy when those around us are experiencing joy (consider the euphoria that often permeates sporting events or concerts), but such neurons also bring us down if we are with someone who is sad or angry if we witness a friend fighting or arguing with another person.
Iacoboni writes that such “social mirroring” is a subconscious, essentially automatic, process that helps us understand the motives and desires of other people, while gaining insight into their thoughts. What this means is that we cannot always control how we may feel when we are mirroring the feelings of another. However, understanding why you may suddenly feel angry, sad or upset can help you to take steps to make yourself feel better – and prevent you from projecting your own reflected feelings onto your other friends and family.
The trick to getting the most from social mirroring is to identify when to let yourself step into the emotional shoes of another and when you need to warn yourself not to. If you identify a conversation as being about a negative topic, remember to act the part of a caring bystander, rather than an empathic friend. This not only lends your friend the support he or she may need but will also protect your own emotional well being along with those who share your home. 
When it comes to mirroring positive emotions, however, embrace the feelings and take them with you. There’s nothing wrong with spreading as many good vibes as you can: Especially this time of year.  Happy holidays!

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