There are pivotal events that happen in this country that impacts us all. The Connecticut school shooting that happened on the 14th of December, 2012, is one of those events.
In an effort to bring comfort, understanding, and a way to help us deal with our feelings of stress, empathy, and anger, this series has been created.
This is a combination of a story and a role-play for each aspect of the six-part topic.
This is an excerpt from a role-play about anti-bullying called “Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders at Kennedy Middle School.” Please note: All story characters and Kennedy Middle school are products of the author’s imagination.
The Monkey and the Amazing Discovery about Mirror Neurons
Part 3 of the ‘Teaching stress management, empathy, & anger control’ series
© 2010-2013 by Debbie Dunn
Mr. Campbell said, “I would like to turn our discussion to a relatively new discovery called ‘Mirror Neurons’ which is connected to how and why we feel empathy for others around us. Has anybody ever heard anything about them?”
Nobody said anything. Mr. Campbell said, “Does anybody know how many neurons we have in our brains?”
Daphne said, “We studied neurons in our Science class. We have billions and billions of neurons in our brains.”
Mr. Campbell said, “Take a look at this poster of the Monkey and the Peanuts. This will help illustrate the explanation I am about to make.”
As you probably already guessed, Fred fulfilled his class-clown role by making a few monkey sounds. Everybody laughed in appreciation.
Mr. Campbell said, “Good introduction, Fred. In fact, I would like to invite you to come on up, sit in my rolling teacher chair, and play the role of the monkey in this short story I am going to tell the class.”
Fred smiled in delight as he acted and sounded like a monkey as he leapt to the front of the room. The class all sat up in anticipation of what was to come next.
Mr. Campbell said, “Okay, imagine that Fred is a type of monkey called a Macaque monkey. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, some scientists decided to use this monkey to learn more about how his brain neurons worked.”
Fred scratched under his left armpit with his left hand and scratched the right side of his scalp with his right hand. He also pursed his lips like a monkey as he looked puzzled and curious. The class laughed with delight.
Mr. Campbell said, “If I had known we were going to have such a good monkey actor, I would have brought in some actual peanuts.”
Looking around the room, he grabbed the whiteboard eraser and said:
Mr. Campbell said, “Let’s imagine that this eraser is a bowl of peanuts. I will put down this pretend bowl of peanuts near Fred-the-Macaque monkey. By the way, Fred, please don’t reach for them until I get to the right place in the story.”
Fred nodded his head as he made affirmative-sounding monkey noises.
Mr. Campbell said, “The scientists wanted to discover which neurons would fire up in the monkey’s brain when he reached for a peanut. They did this by hooking up some electrodes to his brain. So let’s pretend that there are a bunch of electrodes hooked up to the brain of Fred-the-Macaque monkey.”
Doug raised his hand and asked, “Hey, Mr. Campbell, I have some headphones in my backpack. Do you want to use them on Fred to simulate electrodes?”
Mr. Campbell said, “That sounds great, Doug. Thanks! In fact, Doug, you play the role of one of the scientists who hooks up the electrodes to the monkey’s brain.”
Doug quickly retrieved the headphones from his backpack, walked over to Fred, and placed them on his head. At appropriate moments, Fred continued making monkey noises.
Mr. Campbell said, “Good, Doug. Have a seat in a nearby chair and pretend that you are going to monitor the neurons.”
Doug grabbed the Behavior Clipboard and pen from Mr. Campbell’s desk and sat down nearby, pretending to look very scientific.
Mr. Campbell said, “Hmmmm! I need someone who can make beeping sounds during our little story demonstration.”
Almost every boy and a few girls raised their hands to volunteer.
Mr. Campbell said, “Since we already have two boy volunteers, let’s get a girl. Trixie, would you like to come up and be our sound-effects girl?”
Trixie said, “Yeah, that sounds like fun.”
Trixie walked to the front of the room and sat in a chair near Doug.
Mr. Campbell said, “Is there a good artist in the room who can quickly draw the outline of a monkey’s head surrounded by what looks like a TV screen?”
Only a couple of kids raised their hands. Mr. Campbell said, “Randy, would you please draw the outline of a monkey’s head with a large square around it? We are going to pretend this is the MRI Brain Scanner showing the monkey’s head and brain.”
Randy came up and quickly did as Mr. Campbell requested. Afterward, Mr. Campbell said, “Thank you, Randy. Let’s give him a hand for being a great artist.”
As Randy returned to his desk, most of the class members clapped enthusiastically. Fred, still pretending to be a monkey, clapped like he imagined a monkey would clap.
Mr. Campbell said, “The way their MRI brain scanner worked was that every time the monkey would reach for a peanut, two things would happen: first, the electrodes would make an audible sound and second, a specific neuron in the monkey’s brain would light up. Let’s try that now.”
The actors got in position. Doug stood near the pretend MRI Brain Scanner, clipboard in hand. Fred reached for a pretend peanut. Trixie made some computer-like beeping sounds. Doug examined the monkey head on the board.
Mr. Campbell said, “Scientist Doug, where did you see the neuron light up in the monkey’s head?”
Doug pointed to the left part of the monkey’s brain.
Mr. Campbell said, “Scientist Doug, please pick up the marker and make an asterisk where you saw that neuron light up.”
Selecting a different color marker from the one Randy used, Doug drew an asterisk on the left part of the monkey’s brain.
Mr. Campbell said, “Scientist Doug, our next test will be to see if the same neuron in the monkey’s brain lights up each and every time he reaches for a peanut. Fred-the-Macaque monkey, please reach for another peanut.”
Fred reached for a pretend peanut. Trixie made some computer-like beeping sounds. Doug examined the monkey head on the board. Then, at Mr. Campbell’s nod, Doug announced, “Yes, Mr. Campbell, the same neuron lit up a second time.”
Mr. Campbell said, “Well, class, if the same neuron lights up a third time in the monkey’s brain, what can we probably conclude about the peanut and the monkey?”
Cathy said, “I think that means that every single time the monkey reaches for a peanut, that same neuron in his brain will also light up.”
Mr. Campbell said, “Okay, Fred-the-Macaque monkey, reach for one more peanut.”
Fred reached for a pretend peanut. Trixie made some computer-like beeping sounds. Doug examined the monkey head on the board. Then at Mr. Campbell’s nod, Doug announced, “Yes, Mr. Campbell, the same neuron lit up a third time.”
Mr. Campbell said, “Scientist Cathy, was your conclusion correct?”
Cathy said, “Yes it was. We can definitely conclude that every single time that monkey ever reaches for a peanut, that same neuron will always light up.”
Mr. Campbell said, “I believe you are right, Scientist Cathy. Now, I need one more volunteer to play the role of a new scientist.”
Mr. Campbell looked around at the raised hands of most of the class. Noticing that Judd was actually willing to be a volunteer, he selected him.
Mr. Campbell said, “Judd, just like in the game show ‘Price is Right’, come on down.”
Judd got up and sauntered to the front of the room.
Mr. Campbell said, “For the moment, stand off to the side here until the appropriate moment in the story.”
Judd nodded his head affirmatively. Mr. Campbell said, “To continue our story, the monkey and the scientists were resting.
Fred curled up in the chair and started snoring.
Mr. Campbell said, “The monkey wasn’t sleeping. He was simply taking a brief break from grabbing any more peanuts.”
Fred sat back up in readiness. Mr. Campbell said, “Just then, a new scientist walked into the room – Scientist Judd.”
Judd pretended to walk into the room. Mr. Campbell said, “As the story goes, Scientist Judd was hungry. Seeing the bowl of peanuts, he walked over, reached out, grabbed a peanut, and popped it into his mouth.
As Judd simulated this action, Mr. Campbell asked, “Does anybody want to guess what happened with the experiment?”
Barbara said, “I bet the electrodes made a sound and that same neuron in the monkey’s brain lighted up.”
Mr. Campbell smiled and said, “Barbara, you are right. The monkey did not have to personally grab a peanut to makes the electrodes sound and the neuron in his brain to light up. Just by watching somebody else grab a peanut, his brain reacted in the same way as if he had picked it up himself. It was almost like the monkey was imagining he was looking in a mirror watching himself pick up a peanut even though it was the scientist who had done this instead.”
Barbara said, “So, I guess the scientists decided to call this particular neuron in his brain a ‘mirror neuron’.”
Mr. Campbell said, “You are right again, Barbara. They tried one other experiment with the peanuts. Another scientist pulled a peanut out of a sack and cracked it open. Since the monkey recognized the sound of a peanut cracking open, what do you suppose happened?”
Barbara was on a roll. She said, “I suppose that ‘mirror neuron’ lit up again.”
Mr. Campbell said, “Let’s give Barbara a hand for figuring this puzzle out.
The class applauded politely. Not everybody was thrilled that she was successful as she had a reputation of being a bully.
In fact, Barbara had gone to the same elementary school as Judd. They had even sometimes teamed up to be bullies together.
Trixie said, “Can we finish acting that part out?”
Mr. Campbell said, “Absolutely. Hungry Scientist Judd, grab a peanut. Fred-the-Macaque monkey, actively watch him do this.”
As Judd reached out and pretended to grab a peanut, Trixie started making computer-like beeping sounds. Mr. Campbell asked, “Scientist Doug, please explain to Scientist Judd how he accidentally helped you make an unusual discovery.”
Doug said, “Scientist Judd, look. The same neuron lit up the monkey’s brain when you grabbed a peanut as when it grabbed a peanut.”
Judd, feeling like he could not totally let down his guard, challenged, “So?”
Doug said, “Well, I believe we should call that neuron a ‘mirror neuron’.”
Judd said, “Well, yeah. … Uh, …, okay.”
Mr. Campbell said, “Let’s give our actors a great big hand. Good job, all five of you.”
The class clapped enthusiastically - especially for Fred.
Examples of Mirror Neurons & Empathy
Mr. Campbell said, “As the years went on, the scientists discovered that we too have those ‘mirror neurons’. So now, let’s apply these ‘mirror neurons’ to our discussion about empathy. Can anybody think of a time in your life where just by watching somebody, you found yourself ‘walking a mile in his or her shoes’, so to speak?”
The class thought for a time. Then Bonnie said, “Well, this didn’t happen to me, but I think I know what you’re asking. My cousin told me that one of her teammates kicked the soccer ball really hard trying to get it into the goal. Accidentally, the ball hit the goalie in, well, you know, his private area.”
As if on cue, nearly every guy in the room hunched over a bit and groaned. The girls looked around at the guys. Bonnie said, “So, I guess you could say that all guys in the room felt a lot of empathy for that poor goalie.”
Fred said, “I sure could relate to that. My little cousin was climbing on my lap once and accidentally kicked me in that same area. Man, that hurt like fire!”
The other guys groaned in unison again. Mr. Campbell said, “So, what do you think happened to your ‘mirror neurons’?”
Fred said, “Well, I bet that goalie’s ‘mirror neurons’ lit up plus the ‘mirror neurons’ of all of us guys lit up as well. We could all relate and feel empathy on that one.”
Mr. Campbell said, “I have a story of my own. My good buddy loves to watch boxing matches. I’ll occasionally join him. He really gets into the match. He will shift his body from one side to another as if he is trying to help the boxer avoid the punches the other boxer is doling out. My friend will also grimace when his favorite boxer gets hit really hard. So, what’s going on with the ‘mirror neurons’ in that story?”
Blake said, “I would guess that the ‘mirror neurons’ in that boxer and in your buddy are both lighting up big-time.”
Mr. Campbell said, “You are absolutely correct, Blake. Who else has an example?”
Martha Evans surprised herself again. She felt surprisingly comfortable in this class. She said, “My grandma is a big football and basketball fan. When the score is really close, she will suddenly stand up without even realizing it. Sometimes, she will wring her hands. She’ll talk to the TV screen. She’ll even shake her fist as if she is trying to help that football or basketball player make a basket or outrun his football opponents. She is really funny to watch.”
Fred said, “My Dad does the same thing. So I guess you could say that your grandma and my Dad feel a lot of empathy for their favorite teams.”
Martha said, “Yeah! I think you’re right.
Nick said, “I have an example. My older brothers will have a bunch of their buddies come over when their favorite basketball team is playing on TV. When the official puts his hands overhead to indicate the player has made a three-point shot, my brothers and his friends will throw their hands into the air just like they are the official declaring a three-point basket has been made. They will also yell and cheer like crazy.”
Bill said, “I’ve got one, too. My Dad loves watching Nascar Auto racing. When his favorite driver is going around a sharp curve, my dad will lean hard in his chair almost as if he is helping the driver negotiate a curve.”
Jared said, “My Dad does the same thing.”
Trixie said, “My parents love watching orchestras play. My Mom will actually help the conductor conduct as she is sitting in the audience or watching it on TV. She’s not standing up or anything; however, she will sit there and move her hands around like she is a conductor.”
Cathy said, “I’ve got one. When I’m riding in a car and see that a policeman has stopped somebody, I find myself feeling sorry for the driver of that car. I guess I am imagining that I could be stopped someday when I finally learn how to drive. I hope not, but it could happen.”
Judd couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t seem to resist saying, “I always am checking out who the driver is because my older brother has been stopped for speeding before.”
Suddenly, Fred let out a loud yawn. The class broke up in laughter when they all found themselves suddenly yawning as well. Even Mr. Campbell was not immune. Fred said, “Oops! Looks like all our ‘mirror neurons’ were hard at work just now!”
Monica said, “I’ve just thought of an example. My youngest sister is 8-months old. When my mother feeds Suzy baby food, she will open up her mouth to motivate my little sister to open up her mouth as well.”
Blake said, “My mother does the same thing when she feeds my little brother.”
Fred said, “Yup! It’s like that old expression of monkey see, monkey do. A Mom opens up her mouth to make the baby open up his mouth. I stick out my tongue to my little brother, and he sticks out his tongue. I clap my hands. He claps his hands. He loves playing ‘Pat-a-cake’.”
Randy said, “I just thought of kind of a gross one. A kid puked in the cafeteria today. I wasn’t anywhere close, but I found myself suddenly feeling queasy as well.”
Several members of the class said, “Yeah! Me, too!”
Fred said, “Yup! Our ‘mirror neurons’ were working overtime then.”
Mr. Campbell said, “Well, I can see that you all clearly understand ‘mirror neurons’ due to the content of your examples. We’ve already established that feeling empathy for others is a good thing. Now, let’s consider this. Can anybody think of an example when somebody is feeling too much empathy?”
Fred said, “Well, what about that example about somebody puking?”
Mr. Campbell said, “Yes, Fred, that would be a perfect example. Anybody else?”
Doug said, “Yeah! I have an example. When my aunt was pregnant with my cousin and was having morning pains, my uncle felt so much empathy, he started feeling morning pains as well. When she got all these cravings for pickles and ice cream, he got food cravings as well. Worst of all, when she was actually having the baby and was screaming with labor pains, my uncle started screaming as well. He told us later that he felt like he was having labor pains. So I think my uncle went overboard and felt too much empathy for my aunt.”
Mr. Campbell said, “That is a great example. Anybody else?”
Randy said, “I have an example. This happened to my uncle. I’m named after him. Uncle Randy is a sports writer. This happened a few years back. One of the 18-year-old football players went to tackle another player by ramming his head into the other guy’s chest. This caused his head to jam down into his back and ended up compressing his vertebra so badly that the doctors said
Randy said, “he would never walk again. Uncle Randy went to visit him in the hospital. Seeing the guy lying in bed with his head and ankles harnessed as the doctors attempted to re-stretch out his spine and knowing that the football player was paralyzed for life upset my uncle so badly that he fainted.”
Bonnie said, “Your uncle actually fainted? For how long?”
Randy said, “A couple of minutes. He said he woke up to nurses giving him smelling salts.”
Mr. Campbell said, “Yes, that is a wonderful example of feeling too much empathy for somebody. It sounds like he needed a better balance there.”
Randy said, “I’ll say.”
Bonnie said, “I’ve got an example. I can come home from school in a great mood. Then I get around my older sister. She’s kind of moody and gets depressed a lot. I feel so badly for her that I sometimes find myself feeling depressed. I’ve started to avoid her when she gets like that because I don’t want to start feeling down when I’ve had a great day. I’m working on finding a way to let her know that I care but not to such an extent that I can let her ‘down’ bring me down as well.”
Trixie said, “Yeah! I kind of know what you mean. I can be in a really good mood. My best friend likes to go to see some of those real tear-jerker movies. Before I know it, I can be crying away just because some of the characters on the screen are crying. They’re not even real people; however, I am obviously empathizing big-time like they are real.”
Most of the girls nodded their heads that they too had been known to cry at movies. None of the guys seemed willing to admit that they might ever have cried watching a movie or television show.
Mr. Campbell said, “Great examples, everybody! Now, we have one more question to address today. We’ve discussed how ‘mirror neurons’ work. We’ve discussed the importance of feeling empathy. We‘ve given examples of people who went so overboard in feeling empathy for others that they got unbalanced. Now, here is the final question. You will notice that it is very similar to the one that Daphne brought up several minutes ago. How do you teach a bully to feel enough empathy for others that he or she will no longer feel motivated to be a bully?”
Suddenly, Nick, Blake, Judd, Monica, and Barbara felt like a spotlight was being shot in their direction. All five of them felt distinctly uncomfortable.
Bill said, “I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since my cousin Samantha almost committed suicide due to excessive bullying. I was watching this movie about Hitler and the Nazi’s a while back. The Nazi’s were big-time bullies to Jews. It occurred to me that the reason why the Nazi’s would bully and kill the Jews is that they didn’t think of them like they were real people. Instead, they seemed to think that Jews were simply objects to be manipulated around.”
Cathy said, “Yeah! They really objectified Jews. They beat them, stole from them, took away their basic freedoms by putting them in concentration camps, and they turned them into slaves. They even killed over six million of them.”
Bonnie said, “Oh! I think I know where you are going with this, Bill. Perhaps bullies don’t feel empathy for the kids they bully because they don’t think of them as real people with values and feelings. Instead, they think of them as objects they can push around and bully.”
Bill said, “That’s it, exactly. It made me wonder if the kids who bullied Samantha thought of her as an object instead of a person. So, if that’s the case, how do you teach these bullies to view everybody as a person worthy of respect instead of an object that doesn’t matter one way or the other?”
Mr. Campbell said, “Yes! That is an excellent point and question, Bill. So, class, what do you think? How do we teach bullies to feel empathy for others?”
Just then the bell rang. Mr. Campbell said, “Oops! Time has gotten away from us. We will begin to explore the answer to that question as we learn about nine core empathy skills tomorrow. Class dismissed.”
For the role-play download of the above story, please click:
Six-part article series called ‘Teaching stress management, empathy, & anger control’
- Part 1: The instinct for fight, flight, or freeze and the ‘Wild Boar’ tale
- Part 2: Mr. Campbell’s class discusses ways to manage your feelings of stress
- Part 3: The Monkey and the Amazing Discovery about Mirror Neurons (see above)
- Part 4: Mr. Campbell’s class discusses our nine core empathy skills
- Part 5: Mr. Campbell’s class begins to discuss the Connecticut school shooting
- Part 6: Mr. Campbell’s class concludes discussion about Connecticut school shooting
Return to Middle school lesson plan: Teaching stress management, empathy, and anger control
Click below to read other articles in this series
- Women’s emotional health: Aftermath of Connecticut school shooting part 1
- Slideshow: Multiple Perspectives on aftermath of Connecticut School Shootings
- Women’s emotional health: Aftermath of Connecticut school shooting part 2
- Women’s emotional health: Aftermath of Connecticut school shooting part 3
- Women’s emotional health: Aftermath of Connecticut school shooting part 4
- Video - "Mirror Neurons" (Excerpt from NOVA scienceNOW: "Mirror Neurons")
Some of this material in this article series is adopted with permission from the programs of The Anger Coach produced by psychologist Dr. Tony Fiore (http://drfiore.com/).
For daily anger tips, follow him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/angercoachonline.
For adult anger management online, visit http://www.angercoachonline.com/
Resources for the Teacher and Parents:
The eight (8) tools of anger management and control were developed by Dr. Tony Fiore. Dr. Fiore is also known as the Anger Coach. Among other things, Dr. Fiore is a licensed psychologist, marriage therapist, and certified anger management provider.
The 8 Tools of Anger Control plus much of the other Anger Control material is also adopted with permission from the programs of The Anger Coach produced by psychologist Dr. Tony Fiore.
For daily anger tips, follow him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/angercoachonline.
For adult anger management online, visit http://www.angercoachonline.com/
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For comments or questions, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org