Archive - February 28, 2011

The Three Teacups

The Three Teacups

No, it’s not some 60s pop group. It’s the subject of some groundbreaking new research on mirror neurons, those wonderfully designed neural networks that help us tune in more deeply to others in a way we at ANI call “heart-to-heart identification.”

The teacup study is the work of Marco Iacoboni. His research clearly establishes the neurological basis for our ability to “track” with others, to give others the unmistakable signal to others that we are “with them,” that we “get them,” in a way that simple parroting and mimicry could never do. The firing of our mirror neurons, or not, is predictive of our capacity to connect with others at the deepest and most intimately personal levels. It signals to others that they have not only been heard, but “received” in a way that promotes an unmistakable and lasting interpersonal bond.

So what about the teacups? In Iacoboni’s study, the participants were shown 3 videos of the same action-a hand picking up a teacup. In one clip, there is just a hand and a cup-no real detail or context. In the second, the participants observed a rather crowded messy table, with bits of food, crumbs and soiled napkins. And in the third, they saw a neatly arranged tabletop, set for a special occasion. In all 3 video clips, they saw a hand reaching into the scene to pick up the teacup, in exactly the same way. The only difference in the 3 videos was the background-the context in which they saw the hand grasping the teacup.

The big question here is: did the mirror neurons in the participant’s brains fire any differently, signaling that they noticed differences in the 3 scenes? The answer turned out to be a most definite “yes.” When they were observing the first clip, with no context and just the hand and the teacup, their mirror neurons fired the least. In the second clip, with the table in disarray, their mirror neurons fired more actively. When participants viewed the 3rd scene, with the table neatly set, ready perhaps for dinner or a party, their mirror neurons fired the most. They had a “neural template” which was activated when they saw the 3rd scene. There was a pattern forged in their brain which could see the grasp of a teacup amidst a neatly set table, and fire mirror neurons to signal identification with and recognition of what was happening in ways that the others scenes could not. They had perhaps been gathered around a similarly set table, ready to drink from a cup in the course of a party. And so simply by viewing the neatly set scene at the table, in their minds, they were actually at the party.

So what’s the significance of the 3 teacups? Simply this. The study participants had an inner experience on which they could draw and with which they could identify- sitting around a table, eating and drinking. This caused their mirror neurons to fire, as if to say “Yes, I’m tuned in to this scene.  I know what this is and I can live it, dwell in the feeling of it in my brain when I see it, even though I’m not really there.”

Our personal experiences of positivity and negativity form in us these same “brain templates” which allow us to identify in deeply personal and close ways with others who express to us similar feelings and experiences. How deeply we can get in touch with the complex experience of positive or negative emotions in ourselves is the degree to which we can see them and identify with them in others.  Our mirror neurons guide us to this kind of “heart-to-heart” identification.

The mystic poet Rumi says, “Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more — more unseen forms become manifest to him.”

The great gift of our mirror neurons guides us to a “greater polish” in our heart, for they transport us into a deeper state of hearing, understanding, feeling, and identifying with others as well as with ourselves. In this way, what seemed to remain hidden or “unseen” can be raised to a more loving state of “hearted knowingness.”

We carry within us a whole lifetime of deeply and richly embedded experience. The first step is developing the ability to get in touch with and draw positively upon every aspect of these experiences in ourselves- to see deeply into ourselves, to “self recognize.” And only then, when we recognize the same experiences in the words or actions of others, will our mirror neurons enable us to “reenact” in our own mind what others think and feel, heart-to-heart.

And to think it all started with the simple grasp of a teacup.


1) How do you see the “teacup” research translating into your own ability to experience “heart-to-heart identification” with others? Give us an example.

2) What tools do you have to “self recognize,” i.e., access your own deeply held thoughts and feelings in ways that promote positive “heart-to-heart” identification? Tell us your story.

3) In light of the research on mirror neurons and using your tools of positivity, comment on the quote from Rumi. How does “heart-to-heart” identification help to “polish” your heart? With yourself? With others?


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