Editor's note: This post was originally featured on Ashoka US' Forbes blog.
Marco Iacoboni is one of the pioneers in a new area of neuroscience. A few years ago in Parma, Italy, scientists were researching how the brain controls our actions. They accidentally discovered a whole new class of brain cells that seem to be the neural basis of empathy. They called them “mirror neurons” because these cells seemed to map one person’s actions into another’s brain—a kind of imprinting that explains why role models and mentors can be such powerful influences. Since then, Iacoboni and others have found these special neurons in other areas of the brain, and their story has become even more fascinating.
Iacoboni will be speaking at the NexusEQ Conference on the campus of Harvard University in June, one of 80 scientists and experts sharing insights on how people actually function—and how that can inform learning, leading, and living. While one might expect a neuroscientist to fixate on highly technical findings, Iacoboni’s keynote will go in a very different direction: he’ll explain how imagination and empathy are actually the doorways to personal—and therefore societal—transformation.
Neuroscience Meets Social Change
The conference theme is “Spark Positive Change.” The unfortunate truth is that humans find intentional change to be quite difficult (something like nine out of 10 personal change efforts fail). This is especially problematic in this current era of rapid change, where we desperately need solutions to new economic, environmental, and even educational demands.
So we have a problem, and neuroscience may just give us the insight we need to solve it. “Today we’re exploring new frontiers of the brain—and we’re now seeing how humans actually connect in profound ways,” says Iacoboni. “These insights can completely change the way we think of leading and learning.”
Finding Common Ground
One of the central challenges in learning and leading is the ability for people to connect, to collaborate, and to find the common ground needed to work out the intense polarizations that lead to so many of the terrible headlines we see. While humans have a fierce independence, we are actually social animals, and mirror neurons are evidence of this interdependence. “Mirror neurons seem to be a bridge between our thinking, feeling, and actions—and between people,” says Iacobini. “This may be the neurological basis of human connectedness, which we urgently need in the world today.”
What if teachers understood how to reach students so well that children felt included? What if leaders were so capable of managing relationships that employees felt meaningful belonging? What if, in our daily lives, we could bridge the gaps between us?
Working With Our Brains
Like the other experts meeting at NexusEQ, Iacoboni’s goal isn’t about science simply for the sake of understanding. “To be honest, I really don’t give a damn about the brain. I care about the human soul,” reads Iacoboni’s short biography on his UCLA website. He goes on to say that his reason for studying the brain is because it is what determines the ways humans interact with the world.
While understanding the neural basis of human relationships may not be the “silver bullet” to fix all our problems, it’s easy to imagine the power of this work. We hear a lot about empathy in education, in design thinking, and in business—now we’re beginning to understand how this “social glue” actually functions.
Building on the science, educators and change leaders are beginning to use these insights to unlock a higher level of human accomplishment. In schools where these insights are part of education, it makes sense that students are happier and better adjusted. What may be a surprise is that they also earn higher test scores (here’s the data).
In businesses where leaders have been trained in “emotional intelligence,” in other words the skills to work effectively with people, it makes sense that there are less accidents, and stress is less of a problem. What may be a surprise is that they also make more money.
“Conscious companies treat their stakeholders better,” wrote Tony Schwartz, the president and CEO of The Energy Project, in the Harvard Business Review. “As a consequence, their suppliers are happier to do business with them. Employees are more engaged, productive, and likely to stay. These companies are more welcome in their communities and their customers are more satisfied and loyal. The most conscious companies give more, and they get more in return.
“The inescapable conclusion: it pays to care, widely and deeply.”
In short, when we work with human nature, and we take care of basic emotional needs, people perform better. Thus it’s a “no brainer” that we learn more about the brain and how to use this cutting edge science to inform the way we lead and live.
Photos: Photobucket/joycepenner; Flickr/labguest