The French writer and all round clever-clogs Montaigne described a close shave at his 16th century castle. The civil Wars of Religion were raging and neighbourly trust was out of the chateau window. When a neighbour came knocking at his door asking for refuge, Montaigne let him in, at first suspiciously and then more warmly as the man let on that locals were trying to kill him. A little later another scared neighbour arrived, then another. Montaigne wined and dined them, confessing that he was surprised by their visit. Privately he’d thought of them as enemies in the war.
The men admitted to a trick. They’d plotted to gather in his home and kill him. But on seeing his face and enjoying his hospitality, their bloodlust had trickled away. Montaigne decided that it was their face-to-face interaction that had saved his life.
More than five hundred years ago, smartie pants Montaigne had hit upon mirror neurons.
Scientists have now found nerve cells in the brain which fire when we watch an action, as if we’re performing that action ourselves. More controversially, some say they give rise to empathy, leading us to identify with other people’s feelings.
If you think that sounds far-fetched, what about the fact that funny little squiggles on paper – known as words – can make us laugh, cry or feel sick with fear? And if you’re still not convinced, watch this stunning video showing that words are all very well, but it’s the eyes that have it.