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I read this book as a companion text to a seniors seminar on “What Makes Us Human.” In that class, the main text was V. S. Ramachandran’s “The Tell Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.” We were a class of retired seniors all with strong academic, scientific, and professional backgrounds. This book was not as easily readable as Ramachandran’s, but it covered the topic of mirror neurons in greater depth and that is why it was suggested as a supplementary text. Keysers’ book was well-received by all members of the group who took the time to read it and share their views with the class.
I am glad that I purchased this book and read it. I can easily see why is won the 2012 Gold Medal for Best Science Book. Keyser is a very good author; in fact, parts of this read like a page-turning novel. Other parts are quite scientific, but still accessible…after all, neurology can be a very difficult subject.
I was able to use Keysers’ book once more, a few trimesters later, for another seniors seminar. This later class was on “The Science of Evil.” In this class, the main text was a book by that name written by Simon Baron-Cohen. In that class, I (and many of the other class members who read both books) preferred Keysers’ book to Baron-Cohen’s.
Frankly, I am shocked to see that there are not more significant scientific and lay-person reviews of this book on this Amazon site. I hope this brief positive review will help some people realize the merit of this book and they may be motivated to purchase it.
I chose to read The Empathic Brain by Christian Keysers as a reference while researching mirror-touch synesthesia. People with mirror-touch synesthesia can feel sensations (such as touch) when witnessing someone else getting touched. I wanted to read a book on mirror neurons that would be comprehensible for someone with very limited knowledge on neuroscience, while still providing a significant amount of scientific background to gain a solid understanding.
Christian Keysers in this book does a great job in teaching the readers that mirror neurons play a significant physiological and neurological role in creating the connectedness between humans.
As one of the pioneer researchers on discovering and understanding mirror neurons, Keysers does a great job providing general readers with interesting insights into the fallacies of the belief that each of our minds are completely separate. This book does a great job utilizing recent studies along with his own personal stories to convey two main points: 1). Mirror neurons are responsible for preparing our bodies to carry out actions that we witness others doing. 2). The insula is the part of the brain that becomes activated when we respond to other people's emotions, thus suggesting a mechanism behind the reason as to why people can become overwhelmed by other people's emotions.
A synopsis of the book:
Introduction of book Christian Keysers begins the introduction of the book by accounting his experience of almost losing emotional control during his wedding. He describes how this emotion ended up resonating through all of his friends and family in attendance. Keysers immediately hooks the reader into the topic by beginning in this way. He continues to utilize his own personal accounts and anecdotes throughout the book to display the emotional relationships that occur between humans. Although some of the stories may be unnecessary for gaining a good understanding on the subject, the vast majority of them are very interesting and do a good job illustrating his points to the general reader.
The book also provides acceptable amounts of detail into the mechanisms and the neuroscience behind human emotions and their relationship to mirror neurons, thus making it easy to digest. It covers a variety of regions of the brain and identifies the different neural activities of those who show higher amounts of empathy as well as those who fall into autistic or psychopath category.
Chapters 1-3 The first part of the book is on the discovery of mirror neurons. These chapters are used to explain the significance of mirror neurons by using them to answer questions such as "why is it hard to be on a diet when we see others eating things we should not?" I though this was an excellent way to introduce the concept of mirror neurons, because it allowed me to see new possible answers to some everyday questions. I felt that the first part of this book really helped me understand how the mechanism and science of the neurons connects to how we perceive and think. Also, by describing the difficulties of studying these phenomena without knowledge of mirror neurons, the author was able to illustrate how gaps of knowledge were filled with their discovery.
Chapters 4-8 The next several chapters (majority of the book) describe human mirroring by looking into the neural activations of our bodies after we witness actions by others. It uses the concept of mirror neurons to challenge "the classical view that our motor skills should have limited and indirect influence on the perception of other people's behaviors." It also builds from there to look at human language and social interactions. He tries to explain how we interact with other people and why this may have contributed to making humans the dominant species on Earth. Furthermore, he talks about why we react strongly to stories and movies, how we learn from watching others, and why we feel empathy. I believe that the second part of the book was also a very interesting read, especially because Keysers incorporates a lot of anecdotal details into scientific studies, which makes a dry topic much more interesting. I found that the author's tone and willingness to include his personal details makes this part of the book much easier to retain. His examples are fairly descriptive and they allow uninformed readers to easily grasp the science behind studies.
Chapter 9-11 In the last part of the book, Keysers poses an interesting thought, "does autism occur due to deficiencies in mirror neurons?" He first sets this question up by looking into the restricted interests and lack of care for the social world by autistic people. He then attempts to explore how mechanistic issues with the shared circuit may be the key, due to the fact that autistic people imitate less. The author goes on to use more scientific backing to show that autism is more complex than just a "broken mirror," however there are possible therapies that my help. Keyser attempts to finish the book by trying to relate this subject matter to our ethics. He suggests that the "shared circuits are our moral voice." He then connects this theory to compassion as well as moral feelings and learning. What I found interesting was that he took it a step further and attempted to utilize the theory of deficiencies in mirror neurons as a possible mechanism for psychopaths. I thought the last part of the book provided less scientific information and dwelled a lot more on the topics of ethics and social behaviors. I felt that although this was used to connect the science to our everyday lives, I feel that the author's lack of expertise in the field of ethics and social behavior may have left these chapters with some deficiencies. However I will give him some props for finally suggesting that mirror neurons are not only for positive social behaviors and learning, but rather they (even in perfect working conditions) can play significant roles in nefarious purposes.
An interesting passage from this book that I think shows a very over arching theme is:
"Empathic people activate their insula very strongly and may be overwhelmed by the vicarious emotions that movies trigger in them. Other people activate their insula only weakly, needing much stronger stimuli to trigger their own feelings."
Overall Reaction: Overall this book was well written with a general audience in mind, and therefore it did an effective job on delivering scientific knowledge to readers. I think the best part about reading this book was that it allowed me to learn details about the scientific studies that would not be included in scientific papers, thus transforming the current research into a live tangible event that engages and encourages me to understand the real life implications of this subject matter. However, I don't think this book would be suitable for people who are looking for in-depth and advanced information since the book tries to simplify the information with personal experiences that may seem to be superfluous reading for a knowledgeable reader.
This book starts with half way interesting research on mirror neurons, then veers into a long discussion of how empathy is better than psychopathy. Real groundbreaking material! By the end of the book you've been forced to read some pretentious neuroscientist's views of sociology, psychology, philosophy, ethics, even religion. There is one cliché after another. This was supposed to be about the brain, but like most scientists' work nowadays it aspires to great insights. It fails miserably. What is worse, at least in the Kindle edition, is that it is peppered with typos, as if the editor gave up on his task. Errors like "close" (for "clothes") and "obay" for "obey" and many more show how this was sloppily written. It wasn't scanned badly as these are phonetic, not graphic errors.
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