Brain studies on mirror neurons provide insight into both how we learn through mimicking the behavior of others, and why we feel empathy. For example, when we see someone accidentally walk into a closed door, we physically wince and feel sympathy. When we see someone make a face in response to a bad odor, our stomach responds with distaste. Find out more about the role of mirror neurons and how they can cause positivity in the workplace.
What are Mirror Neurons?
The American Psychological Association calls mirror neurons the mind’s mirror. For decades, psychologists have wondered why when people see others experience something intense, they have a gut reaction. Recent discoveries indicate the response is due to brain cells that respond the same way when we see someone perform a similar action.
In the 1990s, a group of researchers studied the neuron reaction in monkeys when they reached for an object, compared to when they watched another monkey perform the same task. Neurons in the monkeys’ F5 premotor cortex fired the same way when they bit into a treat as they did when they watched another monkey do the same. Later studies used magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) to observe a similar reaction within the human brain.
People have contended for ages that emotions are contagious. Mirror neuron research explains why. Most people have been in the room with someone who is enthusiastic and full of energy, and watched their attitude seem to spread to others. Negative emotions are just as easy to spread. When one person rolls their eyes to indicate an idea is no good, others in the group immediately come down with the same feeling.
Sitcom makers didn’t know about mirror neurons, but they did understand that people thought jokes were funnier if other people were laughing. They used laugh tracks to keep viewing audiences rolling as they chuckled along with the artificial background audience.
What Does It Mean in the Workplace?
Workplace relationships involve a wide range of age groups and personality types. Mirror neurons explain how personal interactions hardwired into our brains can be used to create a more positive work environment. Use mirroring to help individuals find common ground with the following:
- When there’s conflict or confusion, display expressions that signal empathy, strength, and support. Signal you recognize the struggle and are confident your team will find a solution to inspire a similar response in others.
- If you’re giving a presentation as part of a group, practice using the same gestures to show you stand together as a team.
- When disagreement heats up, mirror the body language and gestures of the person you’re talking to. Often, they subconsciously feel your gestures, which signifies you understand what they’re feeling.
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