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I bet it happened to you too: You're in a meeting and someone yawns. Automatically, you yawn as well. It's the same when someone smiles at you and you instinctively smile back at them. Did you ever cry at the movies when someone was sad?
Responsible for that are your mirror neurons. They make us the social, compassionate creatures we are. (Well, most of us...)
You heard the saying "smile and the world smiles back at you." That's true and backed up by neuroscience. In 1995/1996 scientists made an exciting discovery. They found nerve cells in the brains of humans and other primates, mirror neurons, with a specific ability:
Mirror neurons start to fire when we watch someone else or perform specific actions.
What are mirror neurons and why should you care?
Since ancient times, people can predict and recognize danger. It's a survival instinct of our brain. Our body language and facial expression work like a separate language. Mirror neurons allow us to identify the emotions and mood of others and predict their behavior.
You can imagine it like an automatic replay. If we watch someone, our brain acts as if we did/suffered what we're just observing passively.
We consider mirror neurons (aka empathy neurons) the center of intuition and empathy. You could say mirror neurons make sure we get "infected" by the joy and pain someone else feels. They create resonance or feedback just like a drop of rain that touches the ocean. Mirror neurons allow us to empathize with someone.
Empathy neurons (a different term for the same thing) help our brain to make predictions. For instance, they help us to not bump into each other in a crowded shopping mall.
Our brain creates a picture by mirroring what we see. It deciphers body language, posture, gestures, facial expression, the tone of voice and other signals instantly; including a "validity check" (are the emotions someone displays real or fake.)
Can you train empathy and mirror neurons?
Scientists say that you cannot train your mirror neurons. I cannot wholly agree with this.
Yes, you cannot train your emotional empathy (the ability to FEEL the emotions of others), or more accurately: We hardly know what we don't know yet about the brain, and we don't know how to improve emotional empathy.
However, you can train cognitive empathy (the ability to understand the emotions of others intellectually.) We are not able yet to activate the firing of neuron cells consciously, but here's the thing:
Some people have stronger intuition than others. There are people and groups of people who are better at reading faces and predicting the behavior of others, for instance, the children of alcoholics.
Why are the children of alcoholics better at reading people? Because their survival depended on it. You're better at recognizing a dangerous situation if you experienced more hazardous situations.
I believe that every person with strong intuition paid a bitter price for it.
Blind people develop a stronger sense of smell and hear better. The brain can change.
Empathy is not a sense but the ability to decode. The talent is higher in those who needed it more urgently for survival.
If you have children or interacted with kids of others, you will have noticed that young kids don't possess the skill. "Is the uncle angry?"
Obviously, the brain learns and it can adapt.
When we read people wrong
We develop the ability over time, and negative experience leads to errors in our decoding.
For instance: If you're beaten up or betrayed by people with red beards, your brain will automatically perceive anyone with a read beard a threat in the future. They might be perfectly kind people with no intention of hurting you. However, you will never know. Your brain will force you to act "as if" and that will fire their mirror neurons and therefore their behavior and how they will feel about you.
"Everyone gets the boss/employee/partner they deserve." Perhaps a better wording would be: Everyone gets the boss/partner they expect.
If you expect or fear someone will reject you, your behavior will change in a way that prompts others to do just that. "I knew this would happen again." Many people are trapped in a vicious circle of self-created self-fulfilling prophecies.
Our mirror neurons force us to subconsciously search for familiar behavior. If we had a ton of negative experience, negative reactions towards us would be familiar.
You can also close your mind and refuse to mirror the emotions of others. If other emotions are too strong (i.e., fear) you will also be unable to read other people correctly.
Psychopaths are the only exception to the rule. We can't help those people, and they don't want help unless you can offer advice that allows them to manipulate people easier. Psychopaths don't have any emotional empathy but often strong cognitive empathy.
However, if you're not a psychopath (which I assume), you can become better at reading people and getting through to them with our empathy training, and you can remove neural pathways that limit your success with our emotional intelligence training.
I advise people to not listen to their "intuition" before they trained their EQ. I say it hesitantly and carefully because I know: You can tell people anything - but they hate being told their intuition might mislead them. Most people's intuition is based on fear and negative experience, and that leads to negative self-fulfilling prophecies.
"I knew they would betray me." No, you didn't. Your intuition wasn't right. You expected it; you feared it and your mirror neurons fired signals that forced them to behave negatively towards you. Maybe they would have betrayed you. Perhaps they wouldn't.
Mirror neurons reflect not just our feelings but those we observe in others. Your fear or expectancy of rejection (or anything negative or positive) will be mirrored in the brain of the other person, and they will act accordingly.
A high EQ also helps you to deal better with hurtful situations and negative emotions. You learn to distance yourself from past events and explore new situations unbiased. Also, the idea of rejection becomes less scary.
Emotional intelligence doesn't help you to remove the demons of the past, but it neutralizes them. You will still remember the hurtful things that happened to you. However, you can retrain your brain to stop creating unnecessary pain by removing the "as if" reflex (when you react to the past and not the current situation.)
Putting your hand in a fire will burn your hand every time. Instinctively backing away when something looks similar to light, will neither hurt your career nor your relationships.
Decoding people wrong will hurt your career, your happiness and all of your relationships.
Mirror Neurons Experience Sustainability
We put learning supported by mirror neurons into three categories:
They work immediately or soon if we want to learn a simple activity. Imitating, watching, exercising is the most straightforward way to achieving that.
Mirror neurons operate over an extended period. For instance, if a child desperately wishes for a horse and watches people who ride horses for two years.
We stock up on experience with mirror neurons. Our brain stores a scene for future use. We might watch how a manager behaves and our parents. Did you ever hear someone say "I didn't want to become like my mother"? Like a time bomb, mirror neurons store learned behavior and fire it "when the time comes" - no matter if you're 15 or 55 years old.
The current trend of learning through observing social media personas is not ideal.
Consequent training changes the "mirror neuron stock"
Perhaps you know someone who used to be a punk or activist (well, now you do... proud animal rights activist here (semi-retired) when they were young. However, all of a sudden they became a part of the establishment they fought for so many years.
I know many people who never wanted to become like their mothers, but they turned exactly into their mothers the second they received their first child.
Mirror neurons explain that. It doesn't matter how many books you read or how much you speak about something. It doesn't change your mirror neurons' long-time storage.
Only training as in exercises and activity (and that means DOING) can do that and neutralize "time bombs."
That's why our training includes so many exercises, and we nag and urge you to do and repeat them.
Learning by imitation is one of the oldest forms of learning, and it works through action.
Power and danger of mirror neurons
Mirror neurons command a "double intelligence" within the limbic system. They can store models of thinking/feeling/behavior as an option for our thinking, feeling, action. I referred to them as time bombs.
That is why learning is a matter of models more than a matter of logic and insight.
Why would a kid of a drinker start drinking themselves? They have seen the destructiveness of the drug and the pain the addiction causes to other people first-hand.
Why would someone who fights the establishment for years become exactly like the people he fought? Why does a new manager who swore they would not repeat the mistakes their boss made exactly behave the same way?
As a child, I hated that my mother was smoking and I kept telling everyone I would never smoke. As a grown up, I became a chain smoker.
It's irrational, isn't it? Why did I pick up an unhealthy addiction I used to hate?
You might not be able to convince your children to stop texting and driving even though you have compelling arguments. You know what would? If they saw all their friends stopping that dangerous habit.
Mirror neurons are also able to complete and predict
Our mirror neurons are able to make in predictions in split seconds. That's why you know the song after the first notes.
Cavemen could predict which enemy is approaching when they heard the tapping sounds of paws.
So that's where the danger of mirror neuron lies. As I explained before, it does not necessarily store accurate information. However, if it stored an incorrect model ("men with red beards will betray me" or "if they lay off personnel, I will be one they fire" ), its prediction will be wrong too, forcing you to act in a way that will lead to negative results.
Faulty connections in our brain
If a neural pathway connects to the "wrong" part of the brain (the reptile or lizard brain) or our mirror neuron storage conserved a defective model, we react to the past.
Something that isn't related is connected in our brain, i.e., "If I'm happy, something horrible will happen."
Something that is related is not connected in our brain, i.e., "If I do my own thing, I'm not worthy of love."
Only retraining our brain until it removes neural pathways that do not serve us and forms new ones can help us to remove emotional baggage and assess the current reality unbiased. (As much as that's humanly possible, but that's a rather philosophical topic for another time and my personal blog.)
Until we do that, our limbic system will be in a constant state of alarm. Sadly, the old saying that time heals all wounds is not true. Most of the time, our limbic system is not able to distance itself from emotional pain.
Generally speaking, people remember negative and painful experience better.
Our brain's only job is to make sure of our survival and for that it's crucial to remember bad events to avoid potential danger in the future.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help your brain remember the good stuff:
Who treated me with kindness? Who supported me in my life?
What did those people say, how did they act?
Which positive emotions did I feel?
How did the kindness I experienced influence or even change my life?
Where and how can I use this model of kindness in my current life?
Whom do I want to treat similarly?
Which act of kindness can I do right now?
If your mirror neurons took a hit and your feeling of self-worth is low
People are herd animals. We need connectedness and relationships. By nature, we are supportive creatures.
However, sometimes, when we got too much of something harmful or too little of something empowering, we have complicated relationships. Our feeling of self-worth took a hit, and that minimizes the quality of our relationships and the results we are getting.
As a grown-up, you can decide whom you want to trust and love. In some cases, it might require training.
We might not like admitting it, but from our first breath to our last breath we need other people. We need them to
overcome fear and gain new strengths
feel secure and genuinely at ease
We cannot get what we need from virtual connections. We need real people, authentic people who care about us to get what we need.
A requirement for loving others is loving yourself. And then, you also have to be able to accept love. People with a low feeling of self-worth and people who were subjected to conditional love as little people, find that difficult.
As an emotional intelligence trainer, I see the topic trending every few years and then people stop speaking about it. Retraining your brain takes a bit more patience than learning a system or similar, and that's good.
If you'd be able to change the survival instinct of your brain in a heartbeat, you'd probably be eaten by a bear before you turned 7.
Also, empathy should be heartfelt. If it's not, it will backfire. The same applies to vulnerability, authenticity, and kindness.
Fake kindness is offensive. Pre-made stories composed to prove how vulnerable and authentic you are will only get you so far. Sooner or later, people will realize the fraud and that you manipulated them.
You can use empathy as a "tool" but for long-term success, you should be willing to become a "better" person. Dr. Mark Goulston explains why in one of our webinar invites:
A positive mindset results from confident thoughts and positive actions.
Here are a few ideas on what you would feed your mirror neurons:
Healthy food for your mirror neurons
I feel that each of us should help and support as many people as they can. The tips below are not meant as in "only spend your time with people who can do something for you" (that would be selfish) but as in "check whom you're hanging out with and if it's wearing you down."
If you're in clique with people who love conspiracy theories and believe that everyone is plotting and out to get them, that's what you feed your brain.
Be around productive people
We tend to imitate the behavior of the people around us. If you want to be more productive, your best bet is to be around people who are highly productive. You might not be able to move your desk into a new office, but you could make lunch dates with productive people.
Imitate the best
We learn to play the piano faster if we first watch someone else play. Observing others accelerates the speed of learning.
Find someone who's great at what you want to learn and imitate them. For this use-case, the internet is also great. You'll find a plethora of teaching videos and webinars covering nearly every topic.
Make someone else happy
Whether you're the boss or a worker: The better the atmosphere in a team, the higher the productivity and stress-resilience - and the better the results.
You can directly influence the atmosphere in your teams or company. The more positivity and joy you radiate, the more joyful the people who watch you will feel.
That creates a wonderful loop of joy at work.
Don't mirror everything
Difficult conversation is ambitous. If your're for instance working in customer service and receive a lot of calls from complaining and unhappy customers, your mirror neurons would normally reflect the negative mood of your caller.
With a little bit of practice, you can keep your mirror neurons from feeding the negativity back to your already angry caller. Instead, you can use the power of mirror neurons to try and deescalate the situation.
Nurture your friendships
Make your friends happy, support them and take good care of them. Who has happy friends, benefits from the reflection of that joy of life.
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