As I wrote in a previous article mirror neuron research is now showing us how the brain ‘reads’ other people. For example, it is now becoming clear that when we watch other peoples’ facial expressions those areas of the brain which are populated with mirror neurons show greater activity. Suggesting that we are scanning those facial expressions in order to match the relevant emotions implied by the expressions with our own. Similar findings apply to hand gestures and lip movements, which correlate to other types of non-verbal communication.
Meanwhile, other research (most carried out on monkeys but sometimes on humans) shows that mirror neurons also light up when we are trying to work out the intention behind a behaviour. For example, when a wired-up subject is shown a film of someone picking up a cup from a table the mirror neurons light up, presumably because the individual is trying to work out whether the intention is to drink from the cup or just clear the table.
What is still more interesting is that monkeys (and people) who excel at interpreting facial expressions, emotions, attitudes and intentions have highly-active mirror-neuron systems. Simply because the more you practice the bigger the growth in the cells within the system.
The bottom-line is that most of us are born with a built-in capacity for empathy right from birth. It is not something we learn (although practice improves ability). And this skill underpins many other things that make us uniquely human: social interaction, interpreting spoken communication, compassion, altruism and ethical behaviour. In short, everything we now call emotional intelligence.
The discovery of mirror neurons in the brain 15 or so years ago has transformed our understanding of how children learn and how adults ‘read’ other people.
Mirror neurons are groups of nerve cells in the brain that fire if either the person sees someone else doing something and if that person does the same thing. For example, if you observe someone else smile then the mirror neurons will signal; if you smile yourself then those same neurons will also fire. Which implies that your brain is set up to ‘mirror’ other peoples’ behavour so that you can adopt it, understand it, or implement it yourself.
Which tells us a number of other interesting things:
- Firstly, the brain is set up so that it can temporarily adopt the point of view of another person and extract information about what that person is trying and to do and why they are doing it.
- Secondly we now know more about how humans learn. As everybody knows very young children learn by imitation. What we now know is that when children copy adult behaviour their brains automatically encode that behaviour so that they can mimic it within seconds. One reason why children learn so fast. And, also, why new cultural fads – slang, dress styles and gestures like the ‘high five’ – spread so rapidly amongst adults.
- Thirdly, it has now become a lot easier to understand how most human beings can read other people so fast. If the brain contains neurons that simulate other peoples’ activities: their facial expressions, speech, gestures, movements and emotions then it will only take a split second for the brain to ‘read’ someone, even when you don’t know, consciously, that you are doing it. For example, your Headmind might, superficially, assume that someone you meet for the first time is nice, charming and interested in your welfare. Meanwhile Bodymind, using it’s mirror neurons, is taking a deeper assessment. It might notice, for example, that the eyes flicker elsewhere while you are talking, take in that slightly dismissive wave of the hand, that his smile fades away a split-second too short. Within moments your body is coming up with uncomfortable feelings while the conscious mind is carrying on with the conversation in the belief that all is well.
One weakness of traditional psychology is that it tries to explain how people learnt about other peoples’ intentions in terms of logic. Meaning that if the people you meet obeyed social conventions in terms of saying the right things, smiling in the right places, putting their arm around your shoulders, etc, then they might be ok. But Bodymind may know different. Which leads to a conflict between your ‘feel’ about other people compared to what you think you may know about them. But because Bodymind uses intuitions rather than words to communicate to you those insights may be over-ridden by Headmind as ‘illogical’. To your lasting cost.
Image by SashaW