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.

Why Is Yawning So Contagious?

Yawning: A reflex act of opening one’s mouth wide and inhaling deeply.  

Why do we yawn? Snakes do it, fish do it, even babies in the womb do it – but the truth is nobody really knows why.  However the emergence of the new discipline of neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – is investigating why we humans yawn – and the answers might surprise you.

Time to yawn

It happens on hot days more than on cold, which leads to speculation that yawning cools the brain. On the other hand, someone running a fever yawns less than normal, while uncontrollable yawning maybe a symptom of diabetes or a stroke. Yawning often peaks just before bed-time but then, oddly enough, stops when we are lying down – still awake – in bed. Yawning is also common just after we get up – when, presumably, we are not tired at all.  

Theories abound

Different species do it for different reasons – birds may use it as a cooling mechanism while snakes appear to use it to readjust their detachable jaws after swallowing a large meal. In humans yawning is believed to have evolved as a social cue to signal to others – an expectation that something different or novel is about to happen – a kind of non-verbal way of saying ‘time for us all to go to bed’. This might explain the increase in yawning observed in parachutists about to jump and in negotiators – the moment talks take an unexpected turn.

Yawning is catching

But there is another unexpected twist to yawning. Like laughing and vomiting – yawning in humans is a contagious behaviour. Once we see someone else do it we are inclined to copy it.  Yawning is in fact by far the most contagious behaviour for us humans and such a spontaneous copying response to a second person’s signal of mood is an unmistakable sign of empathy; the ability to understand and to react to someone else’s state of mind. This might explain why people with autism or with schizophrenia find it hard to yawn – and they respond less to the yawns of others than do most of us.

Show you care – yawn back

Empathy is what makes us kind and people-friendly and the speed and extent with which a person yawns in response to your yawn may be a fast way of finding out if he or she is on your emotional wavelength – a kind of non-verbal way of saying ‘I feel you brother’.  In this way, yawns are most contagious within families but are less inclined to be copied by strangers. The captain of a football team might yawn in the dressing room before an important game and then watch to see who is ‘with him’.  

Mirror mirror on the wa…. yawn

The recent discovery of the so-called mirror neuron system in the brain which helps us to respond sympathetically and empathetically to others may help explain why yawning is associated with empathy, Mirror neurons help connect us emotionally to other people. They help us to respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions. When you watch a good movie with good actors then that’s why you feel the way you do. In this way, yawning may be a powerful non-verbal activator of the mirror neuron system in others – explaining why it is so contagious.

He who dares – yawns

Far from being bad manners, yawning is a sign of our deep humanity. So, go on give a giant yawn for mankind.

Is the search for the cause of autism a hall of mirrors?

The ‘broken mirror’ theory is a popular theory in autism research but it seems that all is not as it appears as  a high-profile paper in Neuron reports that people with autism do not have trouble understanding others’ actions or intentions or even imitating those actions1.

Monkey see, monkey do.

Mirror neurons were discovered by neuroscientists in the 90’s while recording the activity of nerve cells or neurons in the brains of monkeys where it was noticed that certain neurons remain silent when the monkeys observe other monkeys performing the same action2 – hence the name mirror neuron.

Scientists have extended this finding in the human brain to show that nerve activity in mirror neurons also remain silent when observing another person performing an action and/or expressing an emotion3 and this silence is not observed in people with autism – hence the ‘broken mirror’ theory of autism.

Getting it “write”

However in a 2007 study 25 children with autism were compared with non-autistic ‘controls’ on several goal-directed imitation (mirror) tasks shown to activate regions of the brain believed to contain mirror neurons4. In one experiment, the children sat at a table and were asked to copy an adult as she touched a pattern of dots on the tabletop. The study showed that normal healthy children make typical errors on this task – for instance copying the adult’s goal but using the wrong hand. The children with autism made exactly the same error, meaning that they selectively imitate the goal of the action and both groups show the same pattern of brain activity in brain regions believed to contain mirror neurons. These findings suggest that there is nothing wrong with basic mirror systems in people with autism.

Hall of mirrors

Part of the problem may be that the ‘broken mirror’ theory relies on several unsupported assumptions: that the mirror system is responsible for understanding goals and imitation, that goal understanding and imitation are abnormal in autism, and that these deficits cause the social difficulties seen in autism.

It’s all about connections

One possible explanation is that the mirror neuron system itself could be normal in autism, but its projections, or the brain regions it is projecting to, could be abnormal instead.  Also, the mixed findings could be due to the broad spread of the autism spectrum disorders.


  1. Dinstein, al. Neuron 13, 461-469 (2010) PubMed
  2. Rizolatti G. et al. Brain Res. Cogn. Brain Res. 3, 131-141 (1996) PubMed
  3. CochinS. et al. Electroencephalogr. Clin. Neurophysiol. 107, 287-295 (1998) PubMed
  4. HamiltonA. F. et al. Neuropsychologia 45, 1859-1868 (2007) PubMed

Weekly Round Up

Does crossing your arms relieve pain?

In this week’s round up of the latest research in the field of neuroscience, UCLA professor of cognitive neuroscience Sophie Scott explains the psychology behind laughter.

In Scientific American, Katherine Harmon explores how human brains are optimally tuned for the visual hunt.

Many studies suggest that people learn by imitating through mirror neurons. A new study shows for the first time that prosody — the music of speech — also works on a mirror-like system.

A recent report in the Journal Pain reveals that crossing your arms may relieve pain, by confusing the brain.