Mirror Neurons

Every time I read the book The Little Book of Talent I get a feeling of rewiring my brain. It’s a fantastic book and it has to be read at least once a month. The book contains 52 tips for improving our skills and one of the tip is to stare at who you want to become.

If you were to visit a dozen talent hotbeds tomorrow, you would be struck by how much time the learners spend observing top performers. When I say “observing,” I’m not talking about passively watching. I’m talking about staring— the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies. We each live with a “windshield” of people in front of us; one of the keys to igniting your motivation is to fill your windshield with vivid images of your future self, and to stare at them every day. Studies show that even a brief connection with a role model can vastly increase unconscious motivation. For example, being told that you share a birthday with a mathematician can improve the amount of effort you’re willing to put into difficult math tasks by 62 percent… Think of your windshield as an energy source for your brain. Use pictures (the walls of many talent hotbeds are cluttered with photos and posters of their stars) or, better, video. One idea: Bookmark a few YouTube videos, and watch them before you practice, or at night before you go to bed. – The Little Book of Talent

While I was reflecting on the above paragraph, two contemporaries using this tip in their daily lives came to my mind. One of them is Guy Spier and the other one is Charlie Munger. Take a look how they used this tip.

What I stumbled upon was this. Desperate to figure out how to lead a life that was more like his, I began constantly to ask myself one simple question: “What would Warren Buffett do if he were in my shoes?” I didn’t ask this question idly while sitting in a coffee shop sipping a cappuccino. No. I sat down at my desk and actively imagined that I was Buffett. I imagined what the first thing would be that he would do if he were in my shoes, sitting at my desk… Imagining that I was Buffett, I also began to study the companies in his portfolio , wanting to see them through his eyes and to understand why he owned them. So I ordered up the annual reports for his major holdings, including Coca-Cola, Capital Cities/ ABC, American Express, and Gillette. This again gave me that uncanny feeling that Warren— and perhaps God Himself— was smiling at me. – Guy Spier; The Education of a Value Investor

Darwin probably changed my life because I’m a biography nut, and when I found out the way he always paid extra attention to the disconfirming evidence and all these little psychological tricks. I also found out that he wasn’t very smart by the ordinary standards of human acuity, yet there he is buried in Westminster Abbey. That’s not where I’m going, I’ll tell you. And I said, “My God, here’s a guy that, by all objective evidence, is not nearly as smart as I am and he’s in Westminster Abbey? He must have tricks I should learn.” And I started wearing little hair shirts like Darwin to try and train myself out of these subconscious psychological tendencies that cause so many errors. It didn’t work perfectly, as you can tell from listening to this talk, but it would’ve been even worse if I hadn’t done what I did. – Charlie Munger; Psychology of Human Misjudgment

After seeing Guy and Munger following this technique, I got convinced that putting yourself in the shoes of your role model works. But I wanted to know why it works? As Munger tells that if you want to follow something or persuade someone you should tell them why. So I was searching for an answer. Last week while reading the fascinating book The Tell-Tale Brain, I found out the answer and it is because of mirror neurons.
When a monkey performs an action like pulling a lever, grabbing or eating a peanut, certain neurons fire in the frontal lobes of monkey’s brain. This is not surprising as these motor command neurons were discovered long back. In late 1990, a neuroscientist named Giacomo Rizzolatti, noticed something strange. Some of the neurons fired not only when the monkey performed an action, but also when it watched another monkey perform the same action. These neurons are called as mirror neurons.


Human beings also have mirror neurons. Unlike monkey’s our mirror neurons are very advanced and well connected to several regions in the brain. This enables us to see the world not only from another person’s visual vantage point but also from conceptual (abstract thinking) vantage point. Consider the act of reading someone else’s code (computer programming). In order to comprehend the code fully our brain should rediscover the thought process of the author. Without that we will understand the structure of the code but not the intent.

This process of rediscovering other person’s intent is unique to humans and it is made possible because of mirror neurons. This explains why the tip given in the book The Little Book of Talent works and why Guy and Munger followed it. No wonder why V.S.Ramachandran tells that these neurons are responsible for shaping the human civilization. I would strongly recommend you to watch his fascinating talk.

Think of what this means. Anytime you watch someone doing something, the neurons that your brain would use to do the same thing become active – as if you yourself were doing it. If you see a person being poked with a a needle, your pain neurons fire away as though you were being poked. It is utterly fascinating, and it raises some interesting questions… In addition to allowing us to see the world from another person’s visual vantage point, mirror neurons may have evolved further, enabling us to adopt the other person’s conceptual vantage point. It may not be entirely coincidental that we use metaphors like “I see what you mean” or “Try to see it from my point of view.” How this magic step from literal to conceptual viewpoint occurred in evolution – if indeed it occurred – is of fundamental importance. – The Tell-Tale Brain


3 thoughts on “Mirror Neurons

  1. I’ve started reading the book “The little book of talent”. This post reassured me that the time and effort would be worthwhile. And that I need to read it often and not just once.


  2. Interesting read.

    Latter bit seemed relatable to how non duality is instilled as a thought pattern by seekers.

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