• Robb G. Best

Macaques, Mirror Neurons, and The Power of Smiles

Feeling stressed? Having a bad day? Did you know that a monkey, a peanut and a hungry scientist might hold the answer to turning things around?

Around 1997, some Italian neuroscientists in Parma were fooling around with a macaque monkey, trying to isolate the brain neuron that controlled the monkey’s elbow movement. They hardwired the monkey’s brain with a sophisticated sound detection apparatus and then placed a bowl of peanuts in front of the monkey. Each time the monkey reached for a peanut, it triggered the elbow neuron, and the search was on.

I’ll cut to the chase. After a morning of hard work, you can imagine their elation in hearing the loud click of the winner neuron. The story goes that they then rushed off to lunch. In their haste, however, they forgot to unhook the monkey.

When they returned, one of the scientists, apparently not fully sated (could it be that they don’t have hearty luncheon fare like Chef Boyardee in Italy?) reached into the monkey’s cage and helped himself to a peanut. This single peanut theft set off repercussions heard around the neuroscience world.

So what happened? When the scientist grabbed the peanut, to his amazement, he heard the loud click of the monkeys elbow neuron fire from the sound detection apparatus. In other words, the monkey, in observing the scientist’s elbow movement was simulating that movement in his own brain as if he was reaching for the peanut. (Kind of a mental version of monkey see, monkey do.)

This bit of mental simulation is made possible by what we now call mirror neurons. And like you might have guessed, it’s not just monkeys. Humans also fire mirror neurons any time they observe another human doing something. For instance, if I see you slip on a banana peel, my own brain is simulating that activity and giving me both a sense of empathy and understanding of what you are feeling.

Scientists believe that mirror neurons are essential for how humans learn and communicate. This is why when you’re a kid and a parent gives you ‘the look,’ you stop dead in your tracks. Your mirror neurons help you understand what the message really means. This is also why a single glance from a friend can speak volumes. With faces, a picture really is worth a thousand words. (Unless you’re autistic; autism seems to involve a lack of mirror neuron firing.)

Another fascinating face fact: we tend to think of smiles or frowns––body language in general––as a side effect of our feelings. Conventional wisdom places them solidly at one end of a “cause-effect” chain. In fact, it’s more like a feedback loop. When you curve your mouth into a smile, you can essentially trick your brain into saying, “Well gosh, I thought things weren’t going so well, but now we’re smiling, weird. And you actually begin to feel happy, thanks to the shot of dopamine your brain releases.”

(From the same principle, we know that when you listen to someone speak, it’s better not to cross your arms. Even if the rest of you is actively trying to pay attention, the gesture sends a signal to your brain to reject what you’re hearing, and that signal works. Studies have shown that if you cross your arms during a verbal presentation, you absorb 33% less.)

On the plus side, you now know how to alter your own mood. And when you factor in mirror neurons, this grants you a minor super power: the ability to alter the moods of others.

Think about it: when you smile at someone, not only are you likely to receive a smile back, but you can actually induce a little happiness in them as well. With a little work, you can become the Johnny Appleseed of smiles, planting little sprigs of happiness everywhere you go. Now that can’t help but make you smile.


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