Empathy Becomes a Physical Force

The Wonders of Engaging Mirror Neurons in Therapy

Babette Rothschild

Empathy is the connective tissue of good therapy. It's what enables us to establish bonds of trust with clients, and to meet them with our hearts as well as our minds. Empathy enhances our insights, sharpens our hunches, and, at times, seems to allow us to "read" a client's mind. Yet, vital as it is to our arsenal of therapy techniques, empathy has remained a rather fuzzy concept in psychotherapy. To many of us, it seems to arise from a kind of potluck stew of emotional resonance and insight, seasoned with lots of attuned presence and a generous dollop of luck.

Far from the consultation room, in the precisely measured environment of the research lab, neuroscientists are discovering that a particular cluster of our neurons is specifically designed and primed to mirror another's bodily responses and emotions. We're hardwired, it appears, to feel each other's happiness and pain---more deeply than we ever knew. Moreover, the royal road to empathy is through the body, not the mind. Notwithstanding the river of words that flow through the therapy room, it's the sight of a client looking unhappy, or tense, or relieved, or enraged, that really gets our sympathetic synapses firing.

I first recognized the physical force of empathy as a college student, with the help of my friend Nancy, who was studying to be a physical therapist. As we walked down a street together, she'd follow total strangers and subtly mimic their walking style. Copying a stranger's gait, and feeling it in her own body, gave her practice in identifying where one of her patients might be stiff. Intrigued by this mysterious way of "knowing" someone, I asked her to teach me to do it, too. I began to surreptitiously mimic the walks of all manner of unsuspecting folk, from unsteady older people to cooler-than-thou teenage hipsters. What startled me was that not only did "walking in someone else's shoes" change the way I felt in my body, but it often altered my mood as well. When I copied the swaggering gait of a cocky young man, for example, I'd momentarily feel more confident---even happier---than before. I found this secret street life fascinating and fun, but I didn't think much about it until a few years later when I started practicing clinical social work.


On my first job in the mid-1970s working in a family service agency, I began to notice peculiar things happening in my body when I sat in my office with clients. Some of my responses could be blamed on newbie jitters, but I strongly sensed that there was more to it than that. I particularly remember my bodily reactions to a young client named Allison. As she recounted the crises of her week in a spacey, disconnected way, she kept her body very still, and I had to lean forward to hear her whispery, almost inaudible, voice. As we worked together, I began to notice that I often felt lightheaded when working with her. When I began to pay attention to what was happening in my body, I found that my breathing had become very shallow---in fact, nearly undetectable. No wonder I was feeling lightheaded and spacey: I wasn't getting enough oxygen!

Turning my attention back to Allison, I noticed that her chest was barely moving. I was taken aback: we were breathing alike! I remembered then how my mimicry of walking patterns in college had often affected my bodily sensations and moods. Were my lightheadedness and general feelings of disconnectedness just the result of new-therapist nervousness, or the direct result of my imitation of Allison's breathing? If our breathing had actually become synchronized, I realized, it was totally unconscious on both our parts.

In all of my graduate-school discussions on the therapeutic relationship, including the fine points of transference and countertransference, I couldn't remember anyone who'd ever mentioned the possibility of "catching" bodily behaviors. I began a serious study and practice of body psychotherapy.

My body psychotherapy colleagues and teachers seemed to accept readily that their bodies were "in tune with" or "resonating with" those of their clients. Like actors, they regarded their bodies as essential, finely honed instruments of their craft. From these practitioners, I learned postural mirroring, a technique instigated by dance therapists, wherein I'd attempt to get a reading on a client's emotional state by copying the way he sat, stood, or moved. There wasn't a lot of debate about the usefulness of such a technique: body psychotherapists simply assumed that "the body doesn't lie."

Orchestrating Empathy

Neuroimaging research in humans suggests that we may have a similar mirror-neuron system that allows us to deeply "get" the experience of others. When people watch other individuals drumming their fingers, kicking a ball, or biting into an apple, the sectors of their brains that turn on are the same sectors that activate when they perform these behaviors themselves.

While neuroscientists continue the slow work of confirming these promising findings and theories, therapists can begin to apply them now to empathize more strategically and effectively with their clients. Because empathy is rooted in the body, the more mindful therapists are of their own somatic responses, the more skillfully they can choose to engage mirror neurons to gain valuable information about a client's emotional state. Equally important, a therapist can choose to slow down, or even halt, the brain's rush to empathize when it might overwhelm the client---or the therapist.

This blog is excerpted from “Mirror Mirror.” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Aging

Tags: brain science | body psychotherapy | clinical social work | Countertransference | emotion | empathy | family | good therapy | mindful | mirror neuron | Mirror Neurons | mirroring | neuroimaging | neuroscientist | psychotherapist | psychotherapists | psychotherapy | social work | SPECT | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | Transference | transference and countertransference

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1 Comment

Saturday, December 20, 2014 5:11:49 PM | posted by Geir Vik
What about the client mirroring the therapists posture and emotions, a contribution to therapeutic skills?