Mirror Neurons, Where The Brain Goes The Body Will Follow
Everyone’s favorite A-list target, Robert Scoble, announced the unthinkable: he will be moderating his comments. What some people found far more disturbing was Robert’s wish to make a change in his life that includes steering clear of “people who were deeply unhappy” and hanging around people who are happy. The harsh reaction he’s gotten could be a lesson in scientific ignorance, because the neuroscience is behind him on this one.
Whether it’s a good move is up to each person to decide, but I’ve done my best here to offer some facts. I have spent the last 25 years doing research and applying it, both in my work and myself. Disclaimer: I haven’t spoken with Robert about this; I’m simply offering some science that supports the decision he may have made for entirely different reasons.
A few things I’ll try to explain in this post:
1) One of the most important recent neuroscience discoveries–“mirror neurons”, and the role they play in a decision like Robert’s
2) The heavily researched social science phenomenon known as “emotional contagion”
3) Ignorance and misperceptions around the idea of “happy people”
Mirror neurons have been referred to by scientists like V.S. Rmachandran as one of the most important neuro-scientific breakthroughs of recent history. This Nova video is a great introduction, but here’s the condensed version:
There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of “mirror neurons” found in monkeys. It’s what these neurons do that’s amazing–they activate in the same way when you’re watching someone else do something as they do when you’re doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.
Think about that…
Although the neuro-scientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn’t need to know the cause to recognize the effects:
“Choose your role models carefully.” ”Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better.” ”You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd; they’re a bad influence.” ”Don’t watch people doing it wrong… watch the experts!”
We’ve all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, and skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone–we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.
But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you’ll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we’ve spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session–despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we’re around is nearly irresistible.
When we’re consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I’m not suggesting that we can’t or shouldn’t spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don’t want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations–where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror–we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcoholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.
So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around “happy people” and keeping his distance from “deeply unhappy” people, he’s keeping his brain from making–over the long-term–negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:
“If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion.”
This sounds harsh, and it is, but it’s his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help–it’s simply the way brains work.
Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak’s book:
“Anger and resentment are the most contagious of emotions,” according to Stonsy. “If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior–resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage.”
If you were around one or more people with a potentially harmful contagious disease, you would probably take steps to protect yourself in some way. And if you were the contagious one, you’d likely take steps to protect others until you were sure the chance of infecting someone else was gone.
But while we all have a lot of respect for physical biological contagions, we do NOT have much respect for physical emotional contagions. (I said “physical”, because science has known for quite some time that “emotions” are not simply a fuzzy-feeling concept, but represent physical changes in the brain.)
From a paper on Mimetic and Social Contagion,
“…Social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behavior can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice.”
Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on “mirror neurons” helps explain the underlying cause. But it’s not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book: “When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines – social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology.”
[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]
Can any of us honestly say we haven’t experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven’t felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we’ve watched it happen to someone we care about. We’ve noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who they or we spend time with. We’ve all known at least one person who really did seem able to “light up the room with their smile,” or another who could “kill the mood” without saying a word. We’ve all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren’t able to articulate.
So, Robert’s choice makes sense if he is concerned about the damaging effects of emotional contagion. But… that still leaves one big issue: is “catching” only positive emotions a Good Thing? Does this mean surrounding ourselves with “fake” goodness and avoiding the truth? Does surrounding ourselves with “happy people” mean we shut down critical thinking skills?
The notion of “Happy People” was tossed around in the Robert-Lost-His-Mind posts as something ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst. One blogger equated “happy people” with “vacuous”. The idea seems to be that “happy people” implies those who are oblivious to the realities of life, in a fantasy of their own creation, and without the ability to think critically. The science, however, suggests just the opposite.
Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain’s fear system–one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure–when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there’s no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn’t pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes. Many neuro-scientists (and half the US population) believe that it is exactly this fear! = Rational thought that best explains the outcome of the last US presidential election… but I digress.
Happiness is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:
“Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people’s ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. “
In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.
And apparently happier = healthier:
“Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.”
And while we’re dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let’s look at a couple more misperceptions:
“Happy people aren’t critical.” ”Happy people don’t get angry.” ”Happy people are obedient.” ”Happy people can’t be a disruptive force for change.”
Hmmm… One of the world’s leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe–with laughter–some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective…
But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn’t believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can’t be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:
“The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.”
And among the “happy people”, there’s Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:
In a gentle way, you can shake the world.
It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings.
But then there’s the argument that says “anger” is morally (and intellectually) superior to “happy”. The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:
“People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can’t take things in stride, and they’re particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.”
Of course it’s still a myth that “happy people” don’t get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there’s a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion; it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.
And there’s this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation–“if you can’t say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can’t be authentic and honest.” While that may be true, here’s what the psychologists say:
“Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.
It’s best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge.”
And finally, another Gandhi quote:
“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
If the scientists are right, I might also add,
Be around the change you want to see in the world.
Remember the flight attendant’s advice… you must put on your own oxygen mask first.
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