An intriguing but often impenetrable 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 (UCLA School of Medicine). 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. This is difficult material, and it’s made more so by the author’s discursive, roundabout and often turgid prose. Although his subject will be interesting to the lay student of neuroscience, it’s clear Iacoboni is a scientist first, a writer second—and a distant second at that. He describes each experiment in interminable, excruciating detail, but to no particular end; his excitement about the machinery that enabled a particular discovery will not be shared by anyone unversed in the minutiae of brain-scanning and electrode-implantation technology. The final chapters veer into random philosophical and cultural musings—the author argues, for example, that the science of mirror neurons should be put to use reducing violence, controlling addiction and introducing Americans to other cultures.
Jargon-riddled and dense—not for the uninitiated.