Explaining Mirror Neurons

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There’s a viral video, aptly titled ‘Contagious Subway Laughter’ that’s been doing the rounds on social media for a few years now. The video starts with one woman laughing. A few people off camera start to laugh in reaction to her laughter and, in a very quick escalation, nearly everyone in the carriage succumbs to uncontrollable laughter. I implore you to watch this video and try not to laugh. Is it impossible? At least to not feel that familiar bubble of giggly joy for a moment or two? 

 

Aside from likely being the most wholesome video of the last decade, this video perfectly illustrates an important concept in modern-day neuroscience. One that asks and answers this question: How are we able to so instinctively understand what other people are thinking and feeling? This is a question that baffled scientists for decades, until the early 1990s, when a group of Italian scientists studying macaque monkeys discovered mirror neurons.

 

 

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What are mirror neurons?

Mirror neurons are neurons in our brain that fire both when we are performing an action, and when someone else is performing the same action. Same action, same neurons, same firing, same cognitive processing but different people.

Say you’re sitting on a subway or a train and the person across from you starts to laugh. The mirror neurons in your brain will light up at this person’s laughter, in the exact same way that they would light up if you were laughing yourself. Not only that, but the more you get to know someone, the more attuned your mirror neurons will become to that person. They enable you to learn the other person’s behaviour to the point of prediction. This explains how people in close relationships can finish each other’s sentences, or accurately predict each other’s actions. It’s pretty interesting stuff, right? But why is it important? Why do we need these mirror neurons?

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Mirror neurons are like our personal translators, but for social interactions instead of language. 

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Why do we need mirror neurons?

Mirror neurons enable our brains to simulate (or mirror) the actions of the people around us. They translate their experience into our own experience, and in doing so allow us to understand the actions of the people around us. When we see the action of another, our mirror neurons don’t just mirror it, they also start a chain of neural events that simulate the feelings and intentions associated with making that action. A person on the train laughs. Your mirror neurons light up and your brain mirrors that laugh. Your brain will automatically also simulate the emotional response associated with that laugh and start a chain of neural events to even guess the intention behind the laugh. This all goes on without you even knowing, without you being conscious of it.

Until the discovery of mirror neurons, we all thought that we obtained social understanding through logical thought processes of deduction. But the discovery of mirror neurons changed this. Thanks to mirror neurons, we now know that we can understand others by feeling not just thinking. We interpret the actions of others automatically and immediately by simulating the same experience within ourselves. We’ll even likely feel, to a lesser extent, what another person is feeling.

Mirror neurons are a large part of what makes humans social. They explain how we can so intuitively understand our fellow man and empathise with them. They explain how watching someone laugh can make you feel like laughing yourself. They play a key role in our ability to empathise and socialise with each other.

So how do mirror neurons influence our relationships with others? Especially our relationships with managers, bosses and leaders?

Emotions are contagious

Have you ever noticed when your boss is in a bad mood, somehow your fellow staff start falling into bad moods? Or when your boss is stressed and the rest of your team starts oozing stress? Some call it negative energy, some say bad vibes, some might say the feng shui is off, sciences says: mirror neurons.

Your negative mood, expressed through your negative facial expressions, excessive huffing and negative actions, is being picked up by everyone around you, via their mirror neurons. And in doing so, you are inadvertently causing everyone to simulate and unconsciously feel negativity.

The same goes for stress, anxiety, happiness etc. It’s important to be aware of how easily your actions can affect others, especially if you are in a leadership position. Once you have this awareness you can use it to your advantage.

How to use mirror neurons to become a better leader and a better team member

Here are some tips to use mirror neurons to your benefit:

  1. Think before you act. Before you do or say anything exceptionally negative think how it might affect others. Is it necessary? Is there a way you can do or say it in a less emotional and more diplomatic way?
  2. Practice happy actions. I know this sounds silly now, but the more you can show happiness and optimism within your actions, the more you will positively influence those around you.
  3. Surround yourself with happy people. This has a twofold effect, your own mirror neurons will fire up and you’ll feel happier yourself. But, you’ll also be able to learn the actions of outwardly happy people and be able to imitate these when corresponding with your team, or employees.

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