“We use the same cells to build a sense of self, since these cells originate early in life when other people’s behavior is the reflection of our own behavior. In other people, we see ourselves with mirror neurons.”
Marco Iacoboni, author, Mirroring People, The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others
Emotions and actions are powerfully contagious. When we see someone laugh, cry, show disgust and experience pain, in some sense we share those feelings. When we see a great actor, musician or athlete perform at the peak of their abilities, it can feel like we are experiencing something of what they feel.
In the 1990’s when a research team at the University of Parma, lead by neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti, made the serendipitous discovery of “mirror neurons,” a new revolution in our understanding of humans as social beings began. Since that time, neuroscience findings have helped us to appreciate the implications of the powerful sharing of experience.
Relationships are all about connecting with others. However, very few people consciously think about how relationships are formed. When relationships are working, there is a tendency to take them for granted and not think about how they’ve been established.
When our relationships start to fragment and hit bumpy roads, we might give the nature of the relationship some deeper thought. But, the level of thought is more inclined to reflect our anger or disappointment and some unconscious need that’s not being fulfilled. Looking through the lens of mirror neurons gives us an entirely new way of seeing how relationships work. Mirror neurons are those neurons in the brain’s frontal cortex that when activated, result in imitation or mimicry that many scientists now believe is the foundation of empathy. These neurons map actions we see others perform onto our brain circuitry. They fire both when you do something and when you see someone else do something. The scientific understanding of this phenomenon is young, and we will undoubtedly learn more about why and when this neural wiring is activated. Already, we know that movement alone is not the only activator. Sound also plays a role in the process providing us with an “embodied simulation” of the experience.
While many factors play a role in relationships, think of mirror neurons as a hard drive in the formation and maintenance of social communication. Our needs, values, beliefs and their manifestations, on the other hand, are the software programs that determine the quality and nature of our relationships. While we strive to maintain our individuality as we go about our daily activities, the reality is that we live our lives in relationship to others. Their behavior and actions affect how we think, what we feel and what we do. It is impossible to separate us from our biological evolution as social beings. And, so have our brains evolved as social entities. From a neuroscience perspective, we’re all connected… brain to brain.
In his book on Mirror Neurons, UCLA neuroscientist, Marco Iacoboni, cites an experiment that illustrates the impact mirror neurons have on us starting with our earliest experiences. In the study, two children were placed in a room filled with two of each of many different objects. Researchers found that when one child put on a cowboy hat on, the other child did too. When one played with a particular toy, the other soon followed. In order to understand the essence of our relationships, we not only need to be attentive to our inner and interpersonal communication, but also to appreciate that our brains coexist with other brains.
How Mirror Neurons Work
As we interact with others our communication occurs on three levels: body language, words that reflect content and vocal patterns (volume, tempo, etc.). These are the communication “delivery” systems that we use to communicate our intentions consciously, or most likely, unconsciously. At the same time, we interpret the intentions of others as a result of the mirror neuronal circuits of our brain being activated. These circuits respond to body language, facial expressions and gestures; in general any intentional movement occurring in the other person.
For instance, when I see you frustrated, my mirror neuron circuitry for frustration is activated, evoking feelings associated with frustration. At the same time, I perceive the movement/ expressions on your face, which drive the same motor responses on my face. This information is transmitted through the insula in the brain, which acts like a bridge between the limbic brain (the emotional center) and the mirror neurons.
This bi-directional flow of information comes through our five senses into our bodies, is transmitted upward to our brains and then travels downward back to the body. So, we’re not simply “mindreading” other’s brains, we are mind-embodying their experience. I believe that we can’t experience another person’s emotional state unless somewhere in our biology we have experienced and have a language for that emotion within ourselves. After all, how can I experience another’s joy unless I have an experience that I’ve labeled joy and am able to “imitate” that experience myself?
Becoming more competent in emotional literacy expands the language you have for describing your emotions and deepens your self-awareness and understanding of other’s emotions.
When we’re mindful of our experience in the moment we have the opportunity to use our understanding of mirror neurons – as the trigger of that experience – and learn more about ourselves in the process. For example, I can then ask, “What can I learn about myself as I feel the anger rising in me, as I see your anger?”
How Awareness of Mirror Neurons Can Benefit Your Workplace Relationships
There is a definite connection between mirror neurons, mindfulness practice and empathy. Using our understanding of mirror neurons and being able to tune into and reflect on our emotional state enables us to shift our attention appropriately between self and other. It is the blueprint for a deeper understanding of others and relationship building.
Part of the Italian team that discovered mirror neurons, neurophysiologist, Vittorio Gallese, suggests that we live in a “we-centric” space. Understanding of mirror neurons is not only changing the idea of how we see others, but how we understand the concept of “self.” Modern life and business has been shaped by the belief that we are totally individualistic – “islands” unto ourselves – and that that self and others are completely differentiated. Recent science is changing ideas that have governed our ideas about human dynamics for centuries. According to Gallese, “By means of a shared neural state realized in two different bodies that nevertheless obey the same functional rules, the “objectual other” becomes “another self.”
We can now begin to imagine what the world of work would look – and feel like – if this was the organizing principle of all of our relationships.
Thanks for reading.
George Altman Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants