Welcome to Edition 230 of Institute Inbrief! This edition’s featured article is about the relationship between mirror neurons (discovered in 1992) and our ancient, very human capacity for empathy.
Also in this edition:
- Latest news and updates
- Articles and CPD information
- Wellness tips
- Therapist Q&A
- Social media review
Enjoy your reading!
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Hard-wired to Connect: Mirror Neurons and Empathy
Many people have suspected for a long time that we human beings are designed to be able to experience things happening for another person: in good times or in bad. So we see a stranger clumsily bump their head on a low-hanging branch at the park, and we flinch, too. We hear that a friend has gotten some good news about a medical diagnosis, and we are genuinely happier. Yet although we have suspected this – and even have words, such as empathy and clairsentience, to describe it – it was not until 1992 that science could demonstrate how it happens, and even then it was a serendipitous discovery.
Italian researcher Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team at Parma University in Italy had implanted electrodes in the brains of several macaque monkeys to study the animals’ brain activity during different motor actions, including the clutching of food. One day while the monkeys were still wired up, a researcher reached for his own food and noticed that as he did so, the neurons begin to fire in the monkeys’ premotor cortex – the same area that showed activity when the animals made a similar hand movement (Perry, 2014; Wikipedia, 2014a). How could this be happening when the monkeys were sitting still and merely watching him?
During the two decades since then, this discovery of mirror neurons – a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement – has deeply changed the way we think about our brains and ourselves, particularly our social selves.
Mirror neurons connect us with feelings
Before Rizzolatti made his discovery, scientists thought that our brains use logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions. Now, however, we realise that we understand others not by thinking, but by feeling, because mirror neurons let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. So the saying, “Smile and the world smiles with you” has a basis in neuroscientific fact: smile, and your smile recipients’ brains will fire in the same way yours does when you smile, creating a sensation in their minds of the feeling associated with smiling.
They don’t have to think about what you intend by smiling. They experience the meaning immediately and effortlessly. Mirror neurons, in general, fire in both monkeys and human beings when we see another person/primate experience life. They show us that our ability to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes”, is a very real and active part of our brain. (Of course, when we watch someone carry out an action, although our brain is activated, we need to stop our muscles from going through the actual motions. V. S. Ramachandran, one of the neuroscientists involved in the original discovery of mirror neurons, has suggested that there are other parts of our brain responsible for suppressing the action from being followed through with (Troon, 2013).
How mirror neurons help therapists
Mirror neurons also work their “magic” when we are engaged in counselling. As a therapist, you might model ways of responding to anxiety-provoking situations or to depressive thought patterns by teaching the client to monitor, to analyse and to reframe thoughts in a more balanced way. You can also discuss and model behavioural strategies such as breathing techniques or calming activities that might help clients to manage their anxiety or depression. And, just as importantly, you can model enthusiasm, hope, and a solution-focused approach to problems. The mere act of observing a therapist approach problems in a variety of ways can activate the mirror neurons in your client with anxiety or depression (or a range of other problems).
Remember, when the brain-derived neurotrophin factor (BDNF) is able to repeatedly stimulate the dendrites, it up-regulates neurotransmitter receptors, strengthening the pathways in the brain: in this case, the ones leading to positive thoughts and emotions. This process can be likened to a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it becomes and the easier it is to use next time. The old pathways – the ones that are associated with anxious responses and negative thought spirals – can become weaker and less likely to become the “default” pathway over time (Troon, 2013).
Clients should pick a therapist they like
Kandel (1998, in Troon, 2013) cites evidence to suggest that our mirror neurons are more likely to be activated if we have a connection to the person that is modelling the desired behaviour – that is, if the emotional centres of our brain are also involved. Neuroscience thus backs up the well-known statement that eighty percent of the efficacy of counselling depends upon the relationship between the therapist and the client. Simply put, clients are more likely to activate their mirror neurons if they like their therapist; they are more likely to engage with the enthusiasm and positivity of their therapist and to be able to implement strategies that they are being taught.
So when as therapist we speak to a client and the client listens, we are not only making eye contact and voice contact, but the action of neural networks in our therapist brains is having an indirect and, it seems, long-lasting effect on the neural networks in the client’s brain; it is quite likely that the reverse is also true. Insofar as our words produce changes in our client’s mind, it is likely that these psychotherapeutic interventions produce changes in the client’s brain. From this perspective, the biological and socio-psychological approaches are joined (Kandel, 1998, in Troon, 2013).
The neurological basis for social interactions
Said another way, mirror neuron research is helping scientists reinterpret the neurological underpinning of social interactions. While each of us is a unique individual, we are so within the context of a neurobiologically interconnected species. We are hardwired with connective mechanisms, as shown externally by language, gesture, and facial expression, among other things (Perry, 2014; Hill, n.d.). We use facial expression to enhance the capacity of others to understand and appreciate our mental state: our mood, intention, and overall wellbeing. We use language and gesture, both requiring attention and response from others, to come into relationship with them. These aspects of us – language, gesture, and facial expression – convey mental states across space and time and from brain to brain.
Mindsight: explicit reflection and implicit understanding of intention
Not only do we have the neural capacity to express, but also, our brain has specific “modules” intended for interpretation: that is, reaction in relation to an appreciation of the other person’s intention; Daniel Siegel call this “mindsight” (Siegel, 2010, in Hill, n.d.). Mirror neurons help us to understand the truth of other minds – that they are different from our mind. This allows us to have an internal feeling of another person and allows for interplay of reaction prior to reflection. We refer to reflection here as an explicit (that is: consciously aware) state, a state of consideration or contemplation. Mirror neurons allow for an intentional interaction in the implicit state: that is, not consciously aware or considered. This means that false or unintentional action does not fire up the mirror neuron in the other.
For example, in the monkey experiments, the monkeys’ mirror neurons fired up when researchers reached for a cup to take a drink, but didn’t fire up when researchers reached for the same cup in order to clean up after having drunk a cup of tea. Clearly, the capacity to understand intention without having to be consciously aware of it is a powerful addition to our protection and defence systems (Perry, 2014; Hill, n.d.).
Mirror neuron activity a pathway to empathy
Ivey (2009) asserts that empathy can be increased through mirror neuron activity, but that if it is not used, it may be lost. In that same vein, antisocial personalities have been shown to fire less upon viewing others’ pain. So, does that mean that mirror neurons are an element of empathy? Richard Hill (n.d.) uses neuroscience to answer, “Yes”, noting that the emotional areas of the brain – that is, the limbic system – are involved in the mirror neuron system. Information flows from motor areas to insula to limbic. To clarify, empathy is not only a feeling about the other’s experience, but also having a feeling about that feeling; it is an engaged response. Thus, in tapping into mirror neurons, we must ask: is the feeling I’m getting about my “mindsight” of another on target? Because it is an interpretation, we have t o acknowledge that there is always the possibility of error. Our own experience can colour our feeling about another’s feeling (Hill, n.d.), so while mirror neurons are a path to empathy, they are not empathy.
Mirror neuron studies broaden understanding
Finally, neuroscientists’ excitement about mirror neurons is understandable when we realise that such studies are leading to insights in numerous areas relevant to therapists:
- More knowledge about autism, schizophrenia, and other brain disorders characterised by poor social interactions
- A new theory about the evolution of language
- New therapies for helping stroke victims regain lost movement (Hill, n.d.; Perry, 2014).
This article was adapted from the Mental Health Academy CPD course “Counselling and the Brain: An Overview”. The purpose of this course is to give you an overview of the emerging connection between the human brain and counselling, with particular focus on the ways in which brain processes affect and are affected by the processes of counselling and psychotherapy.
Ivey, A. (2009). Neuroscience and counseling: Integrating new research into practice from a wellness base. [Video]. Microtraining and Multicultural Development. Accessed from Mental Health Academy, Fortitude Valley, Queensland, Australia, on 10 June, 2014.
Hill, R. (n.d.). The neuroscience of connection: Mirror neurons and more. Mental Health Academy. Retrieved on 4 June, 2014, from: hyperlink.
Perry, S. (2014). Neuroanatomy. BrainFacts.org. Society for Neuroscience. Retrieved on 16 June, 2014, from: hyperlink.
Troon, G. (2013). How counselling rewires the brain. Melbourne Child Psychology. Retrieved on 10 June, 2014, from: hyperlink.
Wikipedia. (2014a). Mirror Neuron. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved on 16 June, 2014, from: hyperlink.
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How to understand anger
Familiar with this scenario? The idiot cuts in front of you, causing you to nearly crash into him. Your pounding heart, flushed face, tight chest, and gritted teeth tell you: you are angry. Or, maybe someone you know violates you in a despicable way, steals from you or betrays you. You are a “nice” person, so you don’t experience anger, but a dark cloud descends over your life. You stew. Nothing is fun anymore, and you feel grumpy. You, too, are angry.
We’ve all felt this way. Anger may be the most written-about emotion: an internet search on it generates 155 million results. Yet it is often the emotion we love to hate. We wonder how to manage it and see no purpose in it. I’d like to address that aspect today: the function of anger.
An angry part of ourselves causing trouble
There is a well-kept secret in Psychosynthesis psychology. It assumes we all have badly-behaving parts, called “subpersonalities”, which form in order to help us meet needs. By getting to know these errant parts of ourselves – such as the angry one inside – we can act more effectively. Let’s have a look at how an angry subpersonality might operate within us. To illustrate the process, I’ll run a parallel description of the work my client “Paddy” did toward “anger management”.
The process: behaviour, world view, wants, needs, quality
In a nutshell, this heading describes what we want to find out about a part of ourselves we may be frustrated with and (typically) want to get rid of. For many clients, it is the angry part that seems to be causing relational ruptures and career problems, and destroying any possible inner peace. We normally think of the part as an enemy. So, to “defeat” the enemy, we have to get to know it. I begin by asking the client to describe the part, give it a name, tell me how he is feeling about it, and then describe its behaviour.
Behaviour: Paddy said that his angry part was ugly, mean-looking, and wizened. Its name was Sid, and it had been with Paddy since late childhood. Sid got angry at “stupid” things, like when the kids left their bikes out in the rain or left the fridge door open, whereupon Sid would bellow mightily. What might your angry subpersonality look like? Male or female? Does it have a name? What behaviour is it doing that you don’t like (e.g., swearing at bad drivers)? How do you feel about this part? Paddy HATED Sid for wrecking his family harmony and making him feel bad about himself.
World view: Moving a little deeper, we want to ask how the angry part of ourselves would have to see the world in order for it to act in the way it does. Paddy’s Sid, for example, said it didn’t matter how much Paddy gave to his kids; they were always going to be ungrateful and inconsiderate. Sid’s world view ran something like, “The world is a mean place; people will take advantage if given half a chance.” How does your angry part believe the world works? Does it see the world as dangerous? Selfish? Betraying? Exploitative?
Want: Next we ask our angry part what it wants. Sid wanted Paddy’s family, and in fact life in general, to merely consider Paddy a little bit, not to dismiss him. Does your part want justice for you? Freedom to be yourself? Honest treatment without betrayal?
Needs: There is usually a (legitimate) need lying beneath our wants. What does your angry part need? Paddy realised that, growing up in a home where his little brother was always the focus because of a serious medical condition, Paddy’s needs were often neglected or minimised. He “got” that he unconsciously created Sid to help protect him from always being ignored or having his needs not taken seriously. What needs is your angry subpersonality trying to help you meet? What is it protecting you from?
Quality: This last bit is the clincher. We ask ourselves: if our needs above were totally met, what quality could come into our lives? Paddy understood that, if his need to feel considered, seen, and taken seriously were met, he would feel good about himself. A sense of worthiness, the quality of self-esteem, could come into his life. Sid would not be as prominent when Paddy could meet his needs to feel ok about himself.
Making peace with your angry part
In session, Paddy turned to the chair where Sid was “sitting”, and said, “OK, Sid, you can stay [Sid wasn’t going anywhere anyway!], but you get a new job description. You can still protect my sense of worthiness, but now you have to do it more relationally.” Paddy began to be gently assertive with his kids and wife, and at work. He became more relaxed and confident.
Psychosynthesis practitioners can work through a process like this with you if your anger is getting in your way. But you can also set up an extra chair at home and start the conversation yourself, alternating between the two chairs. Following the steps Paddy did, get to know your angry subpersonality. Mostly, see if you can figure out what it is protecting; it is always something precious. When you get that, you can help your anger protect you in a more adaptive way; after all, it is on your side!
Written by Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.
This article was originally published in Asteron Life’s Balance Blog. AIPC regularly contributes to Balance’s wellbeing blog category.
Caring for others: Why do we do it?
When a friend is going through a hard time, we often think about how we can lend a hand and provide emotional support. But are we always aware of the reasons why we want to help? Is it because we feel obliged? Or perhaps because we just want to help – to be there for someone who has been around for us when we needed? We’d like to say, “It doesn’t matter what unresolved issues are hiding in your mind. As long as you mean well, you’ll be a smash hit!” We’d like to say that, but unfortunately it isn’t always true. “Where you’re coming from” makes all the difference in where you get to when lending emotional and psychological support to someone. This isn’t merely a theory. It is a universal observation about human behaviour. As human beings, we all have needs, and how we come into relationship with others to get those needs met determines much about the quality of the experience both they and we ultimately have.
A Case of Lost Direction
Jenny has come to counselling due to strong feelings of dissatisfaction with her life. She is 48 years old, unemployed and does not hold much hope of employment in the future. She has worked in the past at restaurants, in pubs and as a cleaner at a Motel. She said that she could not see any positive changes in her future and was concerned that she would live out her days caring for her son, having little income and no sense of direction. She felt that she lacked any control over her life and was just “marking time”. Jenny came to counselling because she wanted to find out about herself and to find her direction.
Q&A with Toula Gordillo (Clinical Psychologist)
Q. As a therapist I like to use a narrative approach, but I am worried that it may not be ‘scientific’ enough. How can I ensure that I have a scientific approach to helping my clients, but still listen to their story?
A. Science and narrative, the quantitative and qualitative, are not competitors in the quest for knowledge (Roberts, 2000). They represent a complementary duality. Narrative therapy is a very useful method for any counsellor or therapist to listen to their clients’ story, and evidence-based practice can have a narrative approach. In fact, research has shown that narrative practices can be very instrumental in helping to create sustainable changes. Personally I love narrative therapy as well as the Indigenous art of storytelling, combined with other standardised practices, and it seems so do other researchers. Palmer (2000), for example, states that although it may be uncomfortable to ride the twin horses of rigour and richness, science and narrative, the clinician/counsellor has to try.
It is incumbent upon all individuals working with children, youth and adults to address behavioural or mental health issues, to ride those twin horses. I genuinely believe that if teachers, counsellors, youth workers, etc., truly wish to ‘close the gap’ between cultural groups, parent/child relations, teacher/student relations, parent/parent relations, varying literacy levels and socio-economic groups in order to improve youth mental health outcomes, they must regularly ride the uncomfortable path.
Western society needs to embrace ancient and modern stories, metaphors, allegories, song-stories, audio-stories, drama, movies and re-enactments, in conjunction with more traditional scientific methods. Dreamtime and ancient stories, such as the fables told by Aesop over 2,500 years ago, are repositories of wisdom. They offer an exposition of life's problems (Sandelowski, 1991), an opportunity for cognitive reframing, a method of approaching and resolving issues in an enjoyable way, a source of identification, opportunity for catharsis, and a model for increased understanding and insight (Gersie, 1997).
Stories and images are particularly applicable to children and youth, but they can be helpful for individuals of all ages. Evidence also suggests that stories can be linked with initiatives to help improve the skills and knowledge of communities (Denborough et al, 2006). Dreamtime stories, The Jukurrpa, for example, is an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment (Nicholls, 2014). Dreamtime stories as part of Story Image Therapy & Tools (SITT)™, for example, and other therapeutic or educational delivery methods based on narrative practices, may be used to improve the mental health of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and youth, as well as enhance understanding of the Indigenous culture.
As a long-standing narrative therapist with a scientific approach, I have found that you truly can listen to your clients’ story and help them in a factual, evidence-based way. My clients regularly report that they find the information very interesting when delivered through an entertaining story, much more than if I just provided them with psychological skills and strategies in a standard paper/pencil format. Be creative! Use visual imagery and a relevant story to guide your client towards the outcome of increased understanding of their own behaviour or the behaviour of others, and deliver the story in a way that your clients’ prefer…whether orally, written (including pictures and diagrams) or digitally. Keep it fun, enjoyable and interesting. Your clients will find they enjoy the counselling sessions and begin to look forward to hearing more stories, containing more information and strategies. I have used this approach now for twenty years in schools and private practice as a guidance officer and clinical psychologist, and client feedback is always overwhelmingly positive, even in clients with significant mental health issues. I urge you to try it! Your clients will thank you for it.
Toula Gordillo is a Clinical Psychologist, AIPC private assessor/tutor and regular contributor for Institute Inbrief. Toula has an extensive work history as a Clinical Psychologist, Teacher, and Guidance Officer. For more information, visit www.talktoteens.com.au.
Denborough, D., Koolmatrie, C., Mununggirriti, D., Marika, D., Dhurrkay, W., & Yunupingu, M. (2006). Linking stories and initiatives: A narrative approach to working with the skills and knowledge of communities. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 2, 19-51.
Gersie, A. (1997). Reflections on Therapeutic Storymaking: The Use of Stories in Groups. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Nicholls, C. (2014). ‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’ – an Introduction. Retrieved July 14, 2015, from hyperlink.
Palmer, R. (2000). Eating disorders. British Journal of Psychiatry, 176, 197–199.
Roberts, G. A. (2000). Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 6, 432–441.
Sandelowski, M. (1991). Telling stories: Narrative approaches in qualitative research. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 23(3), 161-166.
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A dilemma involving fear and anxiety
Robert has been referred to you for counselling. He has recently started a new role as an executive for a large international company. The role involves some travel and this was made very clear to Robert when he accepted the position. Robert has a fear of flying but really wanted to work for the company and hoped he would be able to overcome his fear for the right role. However, he is now 3 months into the new job and so far has been trying to hide his fear from his colleagues, rescheduling site visits for later in the year or relying on other methods of travel wherever possible. At one point he even got as far as boarding a plane but was so overwhelmed with anxiety that he had to be escorted off the plane before take-off and told his colleagues that he had become ill at the airport.
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