“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
(Thanks to my partner, George Altman, for this excellent guest post)
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 athletic 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
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,
sites 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
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
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
- Mirror neurons not only enable us to “imitate’ other’s actions; they
also enable us to mirror other’s intentions and emotions as well. While
it’s true that there is still an interpretative component when we
“infer” others’ intentions and feelings, we can use the guidance our
mirror neuronal responses to empathize and gain a better understanding
of other’s thinking and emotional states.
- Understanding mirror neurons, you can act in ways that may influence
positive emotional responses. In doing so you are increasing the
likelihood of emotional attunement and enhancing relationship building
in the process. This translates into shared meaning and connection that
deepens the rapport you have with others. Discoveries in the science of
mirror neurons have shown that mimicry is powerfully hard-wired so that
we may take our cues for action from a deeper place of emotional
- People in the workplace want their relationships to be authentic and
positive and will respond negatively to anxiety, anger, vacillation,
and defensiveness. Having the awareness that our non-verbal and verbal
patterns are being “imitated” in the other person puts the
responsibility on our shoulders to communicate and act in ways that move
people toward us.
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 blowing this idea, that has governed our lives for centuries, out of the water. 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.
As always, I invite your comments and very much appreciate your subscriptions, shares and tweets.
Intentional Communication Partners
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