Contagious Magazine, the London-based quarterly, is the most seductively gorgeous marketing publication around, and remarkably insightful in the bargain. So when production editor Emily Hare and North American editor Nick Parish said they wanted to run an essay based on The Art of Immersion's discussion of the role of empathy in advertising, I was more than happy to pull something together. This is the piece that resulted, from the current issue of Contagious:
In the early 1990s, long before social networking existed on the web – almost before the web itself existed, in fact – a monkey in Italy made a wholly unexpected contribution to our future under-standing of the phenomenon of empathy. The monkey, which was part of an experiment in a neuroscience lab at the University of Parma, was watching a research assistant eat an ice cream cone. Because the scientists were trying to map the part of monkey brains involved in rehearsing things, the animal had needles in its head – needles so thin they had been implanted in individual neurons. As the lab assistant lifted the cone to his lips, one of the researchers noticed a particular neuron lighting up in the monkey’s brain – the same neuron that would have lit up if the monkey itself had made such a motion. The scientists tried putting a piece of food on a table, taking it off the table, taking it from another researcher’s hand, each time with the identical result: the same neurons that fired when the monkey did something also fired when the monkey watched a person doing it.
The scientists at Parma had stumbled across what’s come to be known as "mirror neurons" – cells that mirror the experience of cells in other brains, almost as if the observer and the observed were one. Subsequent research has revealed the same phenomenon in humans. A study at University of California, Los Angeles, used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to show that the area of the brain that’s activated when people watch someone else move a finger is also activated when they move their own finger. Researchers at Washington University in St Louis found the same correlation when they conducted fMRI scans of people reading stories from a book about a day in the life of a schoolboy.