"I feel your pain"Time seems to be running out for those who like to mock the sentiment, "I feel your pain." As reported in the November 2006 issue of the Scientific American,1 scientists are busily confirming the theory that human brains have a special class of cells that enable people to literally feel what others are feeling.
The cells are called mirror neurons because they respond both when an individual performs certain actions (e.g., getting set to pitch a baseball), has certain intentions (e.g., moving into position to bunt), or experiences certain emotions (e.g., feeling rejected when not picked for a team), and when the individual observes others performing the same actions, having the same intentions, or undergoing the same emotions.
In other words, it seems that normal humans do indeed feel each other's pain. Conversely, evidence indicates that people with autism do not feel what others feel; research is now proceeding to determine whether malfunctioning mirror neuron networks are the underlying reason for this deficit.
It is important to understand that the empathy we're talking about does not involve reasoning. It is a direct internal experience, which helps to explain why coaches get good results when they encourage athletes to mentally rehearse the skills they need to execute.
An important implication of this research for trainers relates to the role of imitation in learning. It seems natural to offer trainees demonstrations of skills they are expected to learn. What scientists are now telling us is that the trainees' imitation is not simply a product of reasoning about what they are observing, but also an actual internal experience of execution of the skill in question. With such a powerful learning mechanism available, a trainer would certainly be remiss to give demonstrations short shrift ("we're short of time, so I'll just explain"). Instead, trainers should take full advantage of mirror neuron-based learning by using demonstrations as broadly as possible.
1 "Mirrors in the Mind," by Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese (Scientific American, November 2006, pp. 54-61. A January 10, 2006 New York Times article describing research on mirror neurons can be found here.