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Mirror Neurons
September 19, 2011
Written By: Michelle Clark, Ph.D.

Imagine you are jogging through the park and in front of you a stranger crashes his bike. You instinctively and instantaneously flinch in sympathy because at a gut level you understand what that person is experiencing.

Have you ever worked with someone who was so negative that it took tremendous energy to maintain your own calmness when in the same room with him or her, even if you weren’t directly interacting?

We all know that emotions can be contagious. Here is one explanation for why that might be the case. In the early 1990s, neuroscientists discovered a brain function that revolutionized thinking about learning, empathy and reading other people’s intentions. This new discovery was that there are certain neurons, called mirror neurons that go into action both when a person performs and action, and fire in the exact same manner when a person observes someone else perform that action.

Before this discovery, the common wisdom was that our understanding of other’s intentions and feelings was a conscious process of logic and generalization. The discovery of mirror neurons suggests that our understanding of others’ actions, thoughts, and feelings happens on a much more biological and obligatory level than we’d believed. Mirror neurons appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions.

In a New York Times article on mirror neurons, an Italian neuroscientist, Dr. Rizzolatti, said, "We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking."

Others have articulated the function of mirror neurons very thoroughly, and I’d encourage you to watch this PBS video: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/mirror-neurons.html, or read this article: http://www.sfn.org/index.aspx?pagename=brainBriefings_MirrorNeurons.

 So why write about this on a business blog?  There are clear workplace applications.

Accounting for mirror neurons, the feelings you bring to work set the tone for other’s emotions even more than you know. With every action, you are consistently broadcasting your feelings and intentions to those around you. Others take in all the nuances offered by your behavior, and in many instances, automatically mirror your feelings

Mirror neurons act automatically and without our conscious control. This means that we respond internally to other people’s actions and emotions whether we want to or not. Alternatively, insight comes only with intentional focus and motivation. Thus, it is highly likely that:

1) we impact others more than we are aware of; and,

2) others impact us without knowing it.

 Here is an exercise I sometimes use when coaching leaders. Quickly read the next sentence and fill in the blank:

“Why are people always so _________________________?”

Now take that thought and insert it in this sentence: “Why am I always so ____________________?”

Surprised?  This simple exercise demonstrates the emotions you may be conscious of, but think about the thoughts and feelings that you are NOT consciously aware of.  What are others perceiving about your thoughts and feelings that you aren’t aware of?  What is the typical reaction you elicit from others? If it isn’t what you expected, what is going on in you that others are mirroring back?

In the end, the idea behind mirror neurons isn’t all that far off from mom’s advice of treat others as you’d want to be treated.  If your attitude is positive and forward-thinking, you will likely see that reflected in the people around you.  Likewise, if it is the opposite that’s what you’ll see. 

So what are you seeing?  If it’s not what you expected, the good news is that you can work to change it.



Blakeslee, Sandra. (2006, January 10)  Cells that Read Minds.  The New York Times.

Lametti, Daniel. (2009, June 6) How Mirror Neurons Let Us Interact with Others.  Scientific American.


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