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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Marco Iacoboni

Marco Iacoboni and Edwin Rutsch: How to Build a Culture of Empathy

Marco Iacoboni is Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Marco Iacoboni Lab, UCLA Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He is author of, Mirroring People: The New Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others.

"Empathy plays a fundamental role in our social lives. It allows us to share emotions, experiences, needs, and goals. Not surprisingly, there is much empirical evidence suggesting a strong link between between mirror neurons (or some general forms of neuronal mirroring) and empathy."  


In this interview, Marco Iacoboni challenges the traditional Western understanding of human nature as selfish and struggling for surviving and suggests that neurologically and evolutionally we are predispositioned to create empathic connections. A culture of empathy can be increased by: 

  • becoming aware about our biological capacity for empathy through mirror neurons, 

  • having intention to increase culture empathy, 

  • creating more empathic living environment 

  • decreasing the focus on differences and labeling 

  • increasing the focus on us (similarities)

  • increasing empathic behavior of governments, leaders and media....

Empathy Definitions, Measurements & Metrics: Marco Iacoboni, Lidewij Niezink, Edwin Rutsch
In this second interview, Marco Iacoboni, Lidewij Niezink and Edwin Rutsch discuss Definitions, Measurements & Metrics of empathy.  Marco says, "I think what's interesting to me most is to define metrics of empathy. How can I measure this thing?  Why it matters? If we want to design interventions to improve empathy we need to agree upon ways of quantifying it. People do get bogged down in debates on definitions and don't even get to the point of trying to discuss metrics of empathic behavior. This slows down progress, I think" Sub Conference: Science



Empathy Definitions, Measurements & Metrics: Marco Iacoboni, Lidewij Niezink, Edwin Rutsch



2012-01-26 - Marco Iacoboni & Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy 

Video Transcriptions: If you would like to take empathic action and create a transcription of this video, check the volunteers page.  The transcriptions will make it easier for other viewers to quickly see the content of this video.)

(Much gratitude to Barbara Guttman for doing this transcription)

Marco  Iacoboni challenges the traditional Western understanding of human nature as selfish and struggling for surviving and suggests that neurologically and evolutionally we are predispositioned to create empathic connections. Culture of empathy can be increased by: having intention to increase culture empathy, becoming aware about our biological capacity for empathy, creating more emphatic living environment, decreasing the focus on differences and labeling - increasing the focus on us (similarities) , increasing emphatic behavior at governments, leaders and media.


0:06 – 1:52 Introduction of Marco  Iacoboni (his work, book, web, research interest)

1:53 – 2:56 Marco introduces the beginning of his research, mirror-neuron cells, brain imaging in UCLA;

2:56 – 6:00 Explanation of what mirror-neurons and mirroring are, mirroring as foundation of empathy and connection among people

6:00 – 7:27 Marco challenges the traditional teaching claiming that human being are selfish and struggle for survival and suggests that we have natural predisposition to be empathic.

7:27 – Science discovered system in brain that makes human empathic , book about this written for wider public

8:23 - The fact that we reflect about empathy gives are more capacity to be empathic

9:25 – 10:25 difference between Western culture being individualistic and other cultures which are more collectivistic, Eastern philosophy reflects more the connection between self and others.

10:25 – 13:11 Just sending the message that we are empathic individuals increases tendency to empathize, empathy is contagious. increasing empathy with others starts with us put  ourselves in other’s shoes

13:25 – 18:23 Defining empathy – different forms of empathy – different definition of empathy are all reflecting some aspects of it. Need for taxonomy to support research.

4 types of empathy:

  • Self empathy,

  • mirroring empathy,

  • cognitive empathy,

  • action empathy.

18:23 – 19:16 Start with self empathy is western approach, Sense of self is developed through being part of community

19:17- 21:00 Need for clear definition of empathy

21:00 – 24:22 Way for improving empathy: mirroring, shift belief system from labeling and divide us, and look at others as fellow human beings with same needs. Edwin's experience about becoming empathic with his family members due to paradigm shift.

24:23 - 28:00 Government, media and leaders have responsibility to model empathic behavior as a way of increasing culture of empathy.

28:00 – 30:55 How intention is the first step for creation of culture of empathy . Need for interdisciplinary collaboration and debated.

30:57 - 32:32 Mirror-neurons in a performing arts

32:34 - 34:17 Empathy and social structures – empathy can be increased through architecture, classroom and lecture rooms setup

34.18 - 39.55 Arts as ways to increase empathy. Dance and mirroring. Body as very basic way to synchronies and empathize. Our ability to to predict where things are going can also increase empathy and synchronization.

40.02 – 42.18 - Letting sense of self go and having sense of us is nature of empathy. When we are born we probably have no sense of self til around age 2, only sense of us. Sense of self is created by child’s the interaction with care-givers.

42.20 – 44.10 There are two levels of empathy: mirroring (imitating) and controlling levels, (which requires higher level of cognition to imagine what other person may be feeling/seeing)..

44.10 metaphors for empathy:

46.40 closing up the conversation

Episode 39 - Dr. Marco Iacoboni - Mirroring People
"In this episode we cover the different roles mirror neurons play in the brain, how they affect social cognition, learning, behavior, addiction and how they determine how we interact with other people on a day to day basis."

Panel 003-A: How Can We Build a Culture of Empathy?

Episode 39 - Dr. Marco Iacoboni

MARCO IACOBONI, MD PhD is Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. Iacoboni is a neurologist and neuroscientist originally from Rome, Italy. He joined the faculty of the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA in 1999. He is also author of the book “Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others“


2012-01-16 - Are We Wired for Empathy? What do mirror neurons teach about us about our empathy?
What do mirror neurons teach about us about our empathy? This week, leading neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni visited with Six Seconds’ Master Class in Pajaro Dunes, California, for an oceanside chat on mirror neurons and their relationship to empathy and learning. A few of us collected some of the takeaways:
What are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons are “smart cells” in our brains that allow us to understand others’ actions, intentions, and feelings. The mirror neurons are in many areas of our brains, and they fire when we perform an action such as grasping an apple, and similarly we see others doing it. As it turns out, our mirror neurons fire when we experience an emotion and similarly when we see others experiencing an emotion, such as happiness, fear, anger, or sadness.


Happiness and Its Causes- Conference
Are we wired for empathy? With Dalai Lama

  • What accounts for the ability to get inside another person’s head?

  • At the heart of being human – how do we create bridges between ourselves and others?
    How do mirror neurons work?

  • The implications for learning and social cognition


2011-06-28 - Dalai Lama: Changing our minds for a happier life
Dali Lama talks with Marco Iacoboni about mirror neurons.


  • 27:20 About the connections of minds through mirror neurons

  • About mirror neurons - We are wired for empathy

    • We have been told we are selfish minds

      • done not fit with experience

      • evolution has made us to connect with others

    • how they were found

  • 28:20 watching actions and doing them the same;

  • reaching for water and the intention

  • sort of mind reading

  • are important for imitation

    • for learning

    • transmission of culture

    • for creating social connection

  • That we are selfish beings is wrong. we are build to empathize

  • 30:50  Beliefs can separate people

    • we are a global society for empathy

  • 31:20 other studies we've done

    • in the brain - see areas - some areas have more of these mirror neurons

    • the more you are empathic the more you activate this region of the brain

  • 33:00 with mirror neurons - we are us

    • need to spread the word around

    • could increase our capacity for empathy

  • Dali Lama - I believe people are good, you are supporting this.

  • Q. If mirror neurons are activated when we feel others suffering?

    • D.L. Lots of complications

    • Marco -  when you travel you become more open minded

    • people change their minds t

  • Q. Some people have physical problems with mirror neurons?

    • Marco - many factors for low empathy

      • life experiences - can be taught

      • understand how it works in the brain

  • Q.  Extend compassion to animals?

    • Marco - degrees of empathy

      • beings with those like us

      • snakes - move differently

      • this could be over come

      • familiarity make empathy easier

    • can empathize with others who are more like me. gives a physiological understanding

    • intelligence can help - each one does not want to suffer

    • Marco - learn through embodiment

      • embody the concept

      • act out the packet switching - is very effective

      • can do it intellectually

      • mimic  you can fell more of the impact.

  • 44:00 Q. Do politicians have empathy?

    • some people lack moral principles

    • science studies reality

    • relationship of Buddhism and science

  • Marco - Mirror neurons show our interdependence and eastern philosophy has shown this


2010-01-12 - Mirror Neurons
One stop on Alan Alda’s Human Spark journey was a visit with Marco Iacoboni at UCLA. Marco’s area of interest is mirror neurons. These cells in our brains are each active when we perform very particular tasks – such as picking up a fork, or slamming a door – and also when we are simply watching someone else do that same task. In this video, Marco explains his research to Alan and describes how mirror neurons seem sensitive to the intention behind each specific action that’s observed.



 Marco Iacoboni - Beyond Belief 2007  mirror neurons, empathy and morality
 (On google)

  • Introduction;

  • The morality that is relevant to empathy and fairness

  • Evolution and precursors of morality

    • empathy and fairness represent the basis of moral behavior

    • empathy is often studies in experiments on mirroring and imitation

    • fairness is often studied

  • Studies on Fairness in Monkeys - Frans De Waal

    • monkeys want fairness

    • selfishness ver prosocial

      • monkeys show it

        • familiarity

        • equal pay

        • visibility

  • 3:50 - Study: research on mirror neurons related to empathy

    • firing rate of neurons

    • some mirror neurons fire on  aces expressions

  • 6:30 - He does fMRI studies

    • studies on imitation and empathy

    • The Chameleon Effect - we imitate each other

    • Studies show that the more you imitate the more empathic you are.

    • (image)

  • 9:00 - social physiology related

    • mirror neuron system linked to the empathy and the emotional states of others.

    • feeling what other people feel

    • if you imitate the faces of others you feel what they feel

  • 12:00 mirror neurons as bio-marker of sociality

    • study with young people and empathy

  • 14:00 Autism

  • 16:00 Tea Party Study

    • mirror neurons related to intentions in different contexts

  • 18:00 - These systems are the foundation of a secular morality

    • evolution made us wired for empathy

    • people think it's our intellect that makes us moral, but it's actually our beliefs that make us less empathic. they get in the way.

    • Studies - individuals are relatively trustful of each other.. but groups are more distrustful

    • Science has discovered pre-reflective mechanism for empathy

  • 21:00 we can now change society to be more empathic

Authors@Google: Marco Iacoboni

Marco Iacoboni, a leading neuroscientist whose work has been covered in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal, explains the groundbreaking research into mirror neurons, the "smart cells" in our brain that allow us to understand others. From imitation to morality, from learning to addiction, from political affiliations to consumer choices, mirror neurons seem to have properties that are relevant to all these aspects of social cognition.

  • Overview of discussion

    • the discovery of mirror neurons

      • scientist are not always so open minded

    • mirror neurons and imitation

      • imitation is powerful way of communicating

      • it's a social glue

      • imitation leads to liking each other.

      • a powerful way of connecting to each other

    • mirror neurons and other minds - Intentions

      • can we get into the emotions of others

    • Evolution has made us wired for empathy

      • intimacy of self and others

      • mirror neuro help us create a sense of self

      • broken mirrors.

      • neuro science, empathy and society

  • 7:00 - Brain Mechanisms for grasping

    • discovery of mirror neurons

      • the stories of how it happened.. they forgot

  • 11: 50 - Mirror neurons are specialized in people movements

    • congruent cell

    • broadly congruent cells

    • actions that are complimentary

    • hidden actions - don't' need to see the full action

  • 14:23 - What are the properties of mirror neurons

    • specialized for actions

    • not only the same action but also complementary actions

    • hidden actions

    • actions sounds

  • 15:15 - mouth mirror neurons

  • 17:00  Imitation

    • babies can imitate - (image)

    • testing imitation - mirror neurons and fMRI

    • mirror neuron areas

    • TMS of Broca's area (area essential to mirror neurons)

    • language comes from movement

  • 22:30 - model of mirror neurons - to date

    • we use our own neural machinery connected to mirror neurons

    • can understand peoples intentions

  • 24:50 understanding intentions of others

    • getting into the mind of others - Harry Potter

    • the mind is not a book

  • 26:30 - tea party experiment - intentions

    • grasping intentions - to drinking or clean up

    • (images)

    • We feel the others

      • movements

      • intentions

      • feels

    • the other persons intentions inhabits our mind

    • Ludwigh Wittenstein - "We see emotions, We do  not see facial contortions and make the inference that he is feeling joy, grief, boredom..."

  • 31:00 - imitation is strong linked with empathy

    • visuals (photos)

    • we are chameleons

    • feeling what others feel - (image)

    • "I live in the facial expression of the other" Merlo-Ponty

    • a quantitative measurement of mirroring and empathy

    • test of children with empathy and mirroring - mirror neurons as bio-marker of sociality

    • (image)

  • 35:00 - mirror neurons creating a sense of self

    • the mirror recognition test - with children and animals

    • toward 2 years old start recognizing themselves in the mirror

    • then start mirror others more

    • we find ourselves by mirroring

  • 37:45 - Tests - Mapping and Zapping the self

    • morphing self into the other

    • we build a sense of self from others

  • 39:00 - broken mirrors in autism

    • using social interventions and imitations

    • imitation what the children are doing - Sally Rodgers at U.C Davis

  • 42:00 wrapup

    • We are wired to socialize

    • Solves the problem of other minds

    • Revision of long held beliefs

      • we are all individualist vers.  wired for social

  • Neuroscience and Society - he wants to convey this message out to society

    • can change and shape society

  • 46:00 Q and A

    • left and right hand

    • mirror neuron - wired and fixed ?

      • can learn

      • system learns quicly

    • Autism vrs. too much mirroring

      • supper mirror neurons - inhibit mirroring

    • Social consequences - can you train people  to be more empathic?

      • yes can teach people empathy


Mirror Neuron Hypothesis of Autism
Marco Iacoboni, M.D., Ph.D. discusses the mirror neuron hypothesis of autism which suggests that reduced mirror neuron activity may be a central feature of autism. Mirror neurons are cells concerned with motor behavior and are considered neural precursors of neural systems concerned with language and social interactions. Series: M.I.N.D. Institute Lecture Series on Neurodevelopmental Disorders

  • 1:15 - Introduction

    • Mirror Neuron Hypothesis of Autism

  • We can use the mirror neuron system understanding to work with autism

  • Mirror neuron properties: Imitation. language, empathy

  • MIS as a biomarker of social behavior

  • Interventions on ASD inspired by mirror neuron research

  • 3:20 -  Interventions for autism

  • 4:00 - the firing of mirror neurons - hear the firing - videos

    • fires when doing action and seeing action

    • grasping and mouth

    • syringe test

    • another action

  • 8:00 - firing of the cell graphs

    • firing for partial actions

    • behind the screen actions - hidden actions

    • sound of the peanut breaking

    • many versions of the test

  • 13:30 - a paper about body movements at this time it was about the mentalist model of the mind.

    • mirror neurons are related to imitation

  • 16:00 - mirror neurons and autism

    • TMS studies

    • from brain mapping to brain zapping

    • various tests and studies

    • Broca's area during imitation

    • areas of the brain and mirror neurons

    • imitation and language

  • 24:40  from 1950's was speculated the relationship between language and mirror neurons

    • same areas used (fire) when speaking and listening

    • speech is speech simulation

    • link to metaphors

  • 30:00 Social mirroring or empathy

    • Imitative Learning

    • Social mirroring - empathic resonance with others

    • there is a tendency to mirror others in society

    • the more you imitate others the more empathic you are.

  • 33:00 neural circuitry for empathy

    • connection between mirror neurons and limbic system

  • Study of young people and empathy and social competence

    • interpersonal competence

    • how much empathy

  • 41:15 - MNS as bio-marker of sociality

  • 42:00 - 5 labs showing deficit in this system in autism

  • 47:00 we have an immediate emotional perception (glad. mad, sad, angry) of people and it's from mirror neurons.

    • there is an immediate mirroring

    • imitation for connecting with other minds

  • 49:30 - can to interventions with imitation - are imitation based

    • these interventions are simple


Intersubjectivity and Mirror Neurons

Marco Iacoboni, M.D., Ph.D., discusses data on mirror neurons that suggest that their role in intersubjectivity may be more accurately described as allowing interdependence. This interdependence shapes the social interactions between people. where the concrete encounter between self and other becomes shared existential meaning that connects them deeply. Series: "M.I.N.D. Institute Lecture Series on Neurodevelopmental Disorders" [6/2008]