Mirror neurons in the brain fire not only when an animal acts, but also when an animal observes another animal act. Brain scientists at the University of Parma discovered these neurons in the late 1980′s. The discovery was made using new, non-invasive technologies that enable scientists to detect the activity or firing of single neurons in brains, in this case the brains of monkeys. By now mirror neurons have been well documented in humans as well, leading one researcher, Dr. Marco Iacoboni of UCLA, to state that we are “wired for empathy,” because our central nervous system is fine-tuned to mirror the intentions of others.
The significance mirror neurons for nonviolence should not be underestimated. Michael Nagler writes in The Search for a Nonviolent Future, “when in the live confrontation of an oppressor’s wrong with forgiving love [but firm nonviolent resistance] the oppressor can be momentarily awakened and quickened in justice.” In other words in a nonviolent moment, we now know that the opponents do not need to think about what they are witnessing, because the nonviolent actor is actually creating a response in the opponent’s central nervous system. If, as Gandhi insisted, nonviolence is a science, we have now opened a window onto its physiology — into our evolutionary inheritance of compassion.
Mirroring People, by Marco Iacoboni.