How Do Mirror Neurons Work?
When you see a basketball player setting up to shoot, your brain relates to the movement – your body doesn’t mimic the action, but you know exactly what is going to happen next – that’s how mirror neurons work.
Mirror neurons are a newly discovered class of brain cells. They are located in the inferior parietal cortex of the brain and “go live” when you perform an action – or when someone else does. Over the last decade, researchers have found evidence of mirror neurons in humans, primates and birds.
Marco Lacoboni with the University of California Los Angeles, stated, “Our brain divides space into at least two major sectors — one in which we can do things, in which we can act, and one in which we can’t.”
Mirror Neurons & Social Brain Development
Scientists are connecting our social evolution to these tiny cells. It appears mirror neurons enable us to learn skills by imitation, interpret the actions of others – which determines how we will react and/or interact — and influence language development.
Mirror neurons begin to form when you are an infant and are normally fully developed by age seven.
The scientific community is examining the possible link between dysfunctional or disengaged mirror cells and autism, a condition in which a person has difficulty learning, interpreting or mimicking the reactions of others.
Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD is a neuroscientist who was part of the initial research team that discovered evidence of mirror neurons in primates in the 1990’s at the University of Parma in Italy.
“We were lucky, because there was no way to know such neurons existed,” Rizzollati stated after their findings were published in Experimental Brain Research in 1992.
Researchers hypothesize that human empathetic responses – such as fear when you watch someone in a dangerous situation, nausea when you see another person become ill, or excitement when you see the player on your favorite team make a touchdown – may be connected to our mirror neurons.
We relate to theemotional feelings of others because we are mirroring what they are feeling.
“This neural mechanism is involuntary and automatic,” says Vittorio Gallese, MD, PhD, another member of the team from the University of Parma. “It seems we’re wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different.”
Mirroring at Work in Your Social and Professional Life
Every moment of your interactions with others results in increased brain activity you are not consciously aware of. In a social setting, mimicking others becomes a sort of “glue” that creates bonding and a sense of familiarity.
We see ourselves as “alike” rather than as “different” and are more likely to trust.
According to researchers at the University of San Diego, in a professional setting, this same mimicry may have a negative effect.
Lead psychology professor Piotr Winkielman explains, “The success of mirroring depends on mirroring the right people at the right time for the right reasons. Sometimes the socially intelligent thing to do is not to imitate.”
His team studied how subjects interpreted mimicry shown on recordings. They discovered that those who mimic in a professional environment were viewed as less competent and not trustworthy.
Winkielman concluded, “Part of social intelligence is knowing how to deploy this capacity in a selective, intelligent, context-dependent manner, and understanding, even implicitly, when mirroring can reflect badly on you.”
During an interview, knowing when to mirror or not to mirror a potential employer – consciously or subconsciously – could mean the difference between getting the job or not.
Interpreting Body Language Through Mirroring
We “read” other people all the time and we might not even know we’re doing it. Human beings use other people as a sort of learning tool that begins at birth.
Have you ever held a baby that is just a few months old? They watch you intently and as you talk or move; their eyes widen, their mouth changes shape, and they might laugh or cry.
The baby is “reading” your face, your tone of voice, your gestures and deciding how to act or react to the data streaming into his brain.
As we get older, we subconsciously look for clues from the people around us. How often have you laughed at something you didn’t find particularly funny, or unintentionally tried to fit in with others? You may hurt someone’s feelings and that person assures you she’s fine, but her body language tells a different story.
We watch the actions of those around us and the mirror neurons in our brains memorize movements, expressions and results.
Then we analyze that data with the help of body language to determine the reasoning or intent behind the action.
There are six key facial expressions you use almost daily, though there are variations that depend on each specific situation. Happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise and anger are the base expressions from which others are born.
Just as with expressions, there are general indicators that can be “read” from another person’s eyes, hands, stance and handshake.
Here are a few of the most commonly recognized body language interpretations:
- Eyes: If your brain is creating, eyes tend to look right but if you are accessing memory, you tend to look left. There are times that lies are part of “creating.” Likewise, when a person says he is recalling facts, eyes to the right could indicate guessing.
- Mouth: A smile that is sincere affects the entire face, causing wrinkling around the eyes as well as the mouth. A fake smile does not usually affect the rest of the face at all.
- Head: Since the head contains the brain, it tends to broadcast feelings of vulnerability or defensiveness. The head tilted to the side indicates submission or internal thought, but a head held high indicates feelings of superiority or fearlessness. Someone who walks head down is expressing feelings of exhaustion, depression or inferiority.
- Arms: One of the easiest areas of the body to read, closed positions indicate defensiveness while open or relaxed positions indicate security and confidence.
- Hands: Other than the face, the hands are the most expressive parts of our bodies. Obvious hand signals, such as pointing, indicate strong feelings, and conscious signals like a thumbs-up indicate approval. How our hands unconsciously behave with objects they hold, such as pens and other parts of the body can signal sexual interest, stress and deception.
- Legs: It is harder to control how our legs and feet react to stimulus. The interpretations are fairly simple, however. Uncrossed legs imply openness, crossed legs may signal caution or disinterest, and legs in a parallel position might mean the person (usually female) is paying attention.
- Handshakes: Confident people or long-term business associates usually have firm handshakes, but handshakes that are too firm may indicate a lack of respect. If someone shakes your hand with their palm facing down, they may be trying to assert their dominance while a two-hand shake is meant to put you at ease and relay a sense of trust and honesty.
Body language is a science that has been studied since the mid-1900’s and more is discovered every year. Mirror neurons may finally explain why we use the same expressions and mannerisms from culture to culture.
We look at one another…and find we’re not so very different after all.