The Neurobiology of Kindness #WorldKindnessDay

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change. – The Buddha (c. 563 BCE) 

Look deeply into nature to understand the secrets of the Universe.

Until recently, the task of applying what we know about the brain to the bigger question of personal human experience has been avoided by scientists. However the emergence of the new discipline of neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – is helping us to bridge this gap by providing new ways to answer such age-old questions as why does kindness exist, and why is it important? To answer these questions we first need to consider an important property of nerve cells (neurons) in the human brain.

What actually is emotion?

Emotion feels so natural and seems so normal, but what if emotion is not there? What if emotion is an emergent phenomenon and only something we experience as macroscopic beings? This might sound strange, but we know that we are sandwiched within the Universe. For example, we do not feel the cosmological expansion that dominates the large scale of the Universe nor do we feel the very small scale where individual atoms inside us collide with our skin. Instead, we have a collective term – temperature – to describe what is happening. Perhaps emotion is the same. This may feel uncomfortable when you ask just where is the ‘you’ and how you feel in all of this.  

Understanding emotion

Perhaps it is best to think of it like this – most of us have come to terms with the fact that we are physically a collection of atoms. We, and our consciousness somehow emerge and we seem to be able to live with this illusion of our being. Maybe all we need to do is the same for how we feel, as we play out our short existence.

Mirror neurons

The discovery of mirror neurons,  a cluster of neurons in the brain that help connect us emotionally to other people, respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others’ intentions is now believed to be the basis of human empathy. Mirror neurons were first discovered by neuroscientists in the 1990s while recording the activity of neurons in the brain where it was noticed that certain populations of neurons remain silent (observation) and active (imitation) when we watch others perform the same action, hence the name mirror neurons [1,2]. Scientists have extended this finding in the human brain to show that nerve activity in mirror neurons also behaves in the same way when we see another person expressing an emotion, and this nerve activity is not observed in disorders of empathy [3].

Our behaviour mirrors our environment

Each person is a mirror of their environment, which is then in turn mirrored by their own behaviour. This underlies the powerful phenomenon of social contagion – that information, ideas, and behaviours including kindness can spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do. For this reason, giving and receiving kindness can have a contagious effect.  Research also shows that optimal learning takes place in an environment that is creative, inclusive, rewarding and bolstered by firm, healthy boundaries, in an environment that is kind.  Even those in deep distress due to imprisonment, addiction, financial worries, and high anxiety also benefit greatly from an environment that is creative, inclusive and boundaried. 


What to do when we encounter unkindness? Behaviours including anxiety, anger, and rudeness can also spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do. The antidote to becoming infected with these miserable states is to be aware that every action must be consciously chosen, and not an emotional response.

Kindness is the key to our survival

Why is kindness so important? This question can be answered in the context that every single human being is unique because we each poses a uniquely complex brain, so complex that in all of human history no two human brains can be identical. This is because the unique combination of about 100 trillion tiny brain connections (synapses) that grow and change throughout life is an ongoing work in progress from conception to death. In this way we each one of us ‘evolve’ as true individuals as we each make our journey through life. Kindness is the green light to keep going. If you are not open to giving and receiving kindness then you may not be growing. In the same way, humankind will only evolve by making room for each and every individual to express their intellectual and spiritual evolution to the full.  In this way, the evolution of the human race has everything to do with being open to giving and receiving kindness. 


[1] Mirror Neurons.  Society for Neuroscience (2013) 

[2] Kraskov A, Dancause N, Quallo MM, Shepherd S and Lemon RN.  (2009) Corticospinal neurons in macaque ventral premotor cortex with mirror properties: A potential mechanism for action suppression? Neuron 64, 922-930.

[3] Corradini A, Antonietti A. (2013) Mirror neurons and their function in cognitively understood empathy. Consciousness and Cognition. 22, 1152–1161.

What can mirror neurons teach us about consciousness, mental health and well-being?


The study of mirror neurons is converging to unite the emerging scientific study of consciousness  with the field of cybernetics, to bridge the gap between the mechanistic models of brain function, with the knowledge of ourselves as a lot more than just our brains.

Mind and brain

Human beings cannot be defined by their physical body or brain alone – just as electricity cannot be defined by the nerves through which it travels. The human brain is in fact, a system in constant flux. This distinction between the brain and the mind – that man is not a machine but has and uses a machine – the brain – is critical in our understanding of how we as humans learn and evolve.

Brain inputs and outputs

Cybernetics 030913

This illustration shows that different circuits are called upon in the brain for gathering information from the world around us (i.e. input from the five senses) and for acting on the world (output though thought and action).

We are more than just our brain circuits

In this way the human brain is a system that takes in sensory data to create new nerve connections that are to be used in interactions with the external world. Feedback from the external environment, in turn, is used to enhance subsequent communications with it. This can be described in cybernetic terms as a ‘virtuous loop’ of control, communication and feedback is the key feature of a servomechanism that needs to arrive at a preset goal.  An understanding of consciousness is of particular interest to cybernetics which questions as to how psychological/cognitive functions are produced by brain circuits.

Mirror neurons which mirror neurons which mirror neurons, etc., = consciousness


In a provocative video Douglas Hofstadter argues that mirror neurons – cluster of neurons that help connect us emotionally to other people, respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions – have an additional function as part of an internal ‘vortex of control, communication and feedback’ that arrives at the preset goal that we call conscious self-awareness. He goes on to argue that the more self-referentially aware a mind is – the more it self-mirrors – i.e. the more conscious it becomes.

The cybernetics of happiness

Happiness is a matter of attention – of choice – and most important to the dynamic of happiness is – the what, the target/goal – rather than – the how, the path. The frontal lobes of the brain focus attention on what is to be learned while the subconscious mind in part located in a deeper brain structure called the midbrain delivers the drive to achieve it. The idea of focused attention together with the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain is radically altering our understanding of improving self-regulation by providing new opportunities to learn how brains pay attention in real world settings and acquire healthy habits to reduce or prevent needless suffering not only in others but also in ourselves.

Mental health and well-being

In his bestselling positive psychology book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life Martin Seligman insists that in order to protect yourself from being swamped by failure you must have a compelling goal, something that drives you forward. While this may sound obvious and not particularly insightful, goal-setting involves overcoming some very natural inclinations. When you have clear goals in mind defeat cannot be seen as permanent or in any way a reflection on you as a person.  Most problems we have are temporary and external but too often failure is taken personally. This is why having a compelling goal is so important to mental health.

Choose your goals carefully

The choice of goal is also important as mental health and well-being is facilitated when people ‘self-mirror’ with noble, self-empowering goals involving kindness, generosity and courage. Too often in life people set goals such as the accumulation of wealth/possessions, status and/or the pursuit of pleasure only to find disappointment. Pleasure is of the senses and leads to emotional exhaustion while happiness is a by-product of focussed attention on a compelling and self-empowering goal.

It is important to develop the skill of goal setting and apply it to all aspects of your life.

In the end the happiest person is someone who has become their goals.