The Magic of our Mirror Neurons
By Nancy Zwiers
Can you decipher the emotions behind these expressions? People across the world can...all becasue of mirror neurons.
Discovery--In 1997, researchers were working with macaque monkeys using functional MRI and they stumbled upon a breakthrough discovery. Areas of the brain that “lit up” when the monkeys performed an action also lit up when they watched the researchers perform that same action! Thus, a new type of neuron in the brain--mirror neurons-- was discovered. Evolutionary biologists estimate mirror neurons first arose about 25,000 years ago and they hypothesize that they may have turbo-charged evolution and the development of civilization. There are four exciting ways mirror neurons operate within our brains.
Mirror neurons power our ability to learn from others. Our brain lights up not only when we perform an action, but also when we see it, write about it, think about it. This reinforces the value of modeling the behaviors we want someone else to take. Show, dont' tell! For example, when we launched Hatchimals, we knew the hatching could be a family experience and we wanted people to share their experiences on social media. So in our TV commercial and online, we showed our hero girl with her family and friends, and dad was capturing the experience on his phone! Unboxing videos serve this same purpose…
* What behaviors can you show (model) that you want to see replicated by others?
Mirror neurons propel us to imitate. In children, this shows up as imitation role play…first as toddlers mimic their parents (caring for baby doll, shopping for groceries with their miniature cart, etc.). In the magical thinking years of 3-6, children graduate to imitating their favorite fantasy characters. As the enter the tween years, they imitate what they see in pop culture. As adults, we denigrate peer pressure, but that dynamic is hard wired into our brain. Think about the last time you entered an unfamiliar situation…you carefully observed how others were behaving so you could get cues on how you should behave.
* What is happening in our world that can translate into new forms of imitation roleplay?
Mirror neurons are called the “seat of empathy.” We have the ability to grasp what someone else is feeling (see chart of Eckmans faces above). Of note, our ability to recognize facial expressions covering six primary emotions is universal (happy, sad, angry, afraid, surprised, disgusted). The ability to empathize is essential for successful human interactions—in fact, renown leadership expert, Simon Sinek, considers empathy to be a leader’s most important skill. Watch his talk on Empathy in You Tube!
* Who are you trying to influence that you can develop more empathy for?
We are inherently social animals, driven to bond. The main thing that separates humans from chimpanzees, with whom we share 98.8% of our DNA, is our ability to cooperate in large numbers. Though apes can cooperate in small groups, if you put 80,000 of them in a stadium, havoc would ensue. Speaking of stadiums, nowhere is our drive to bond more apparent than when we join our fellow fans in cheering on our favorite sports team or rocking out to our favorite band.
* What can you do to facilitate bonding—with consumers, clients and/or colleagues? How can you proactively facilitate bonding in the era of remote work?