Actions driven solely by anger are of no use at all

What turns anger into action?

Mostly cognitive control, or to use a less technical term, self-control. About a year ago I was in Davos at the World Economic Forum, and we had a dinner-with-talks on intelligence. University of Michigan professor of social psychology Richard Nisbett, the world’s greatest authority on intelligence, plainly said that he’d rather have his son being high in self-control than intelligence. Self-control is key to a well-functioning life, because our brain makes us easily [susceptible] to all sorts of influences. Watching a movie showing violent acts predisposes us to act violently. Even just listening to violent rhetoric makes us more inclined to be violent. Ironically, the same mirror neurons that make us empathic make us also very vulnerable to all sorts influences.

This is why control mechanisms are so important. Indeed, after many years of studies on mirror neurons and their functioning we are shifting our lab research to the study of the control mechanisms in the brain for mirror neurons. If you think about it, there must be control mechanisms for mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are cells that fire when I grab a cup of coffee (to give you an example) as well as when I see you grabbing a cup of coffee. So, how come I don’t imitate you all the time? The idea is that there are systems in the brain that help us by imitating only “internally”—they dampen the activity of mirror neurons when we simply watch, so that we can still have the sort of “inner imitation” that allows us to empathize with others, without any overt imitation.

The key issue is the balance of power between these control mechanisms that we call top-down—because they are all like executives that control from the top down to the employees—and bottom-up mechanisms, in the opposite direction, like mirror neurons. Whereby perception—watching somebody making an action—influences decisions—making the same action ourselves.

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