Some new research is emerging in neuroscience regarding the dynamics of human relationships. One of the findings references a set of neurons that reside in the bottom back part of our brains that are being labeled “mirror neurons.” Their role? Once threat levels of an experience or a person is designated by the prefrontal lobes, mirror neurons instinctively mimic the stimuli.
For example, if you are talking to someone and they smile, without much cognitive function, you are likely to smile as well. Extrapolated further, if you are around a group of people and they are all smiling and laughing, you are likely to do that too. There is no cognitive activity that suggests “someone else is smiling, therefore I will smile too,” we simply do it via these mirror neurons.
Conversely, if you’re talking to a person that is sad or negative, you too instinctively adopt that disposition, without consciously choosing to do so. In many cases, the nonverbal stimuli are not as obvious as a smile or frown. They may be a pause, or a unfamiliar look, or an abstract comment that we decipher as a threat.
Why do these neurons exist? Like most of our organs and cognitive functions, they are designed primarily to help us survive in many cases by avoiding threats. Frowning when someone is smiling or vice versa clearly sends the wrong message and could result in a threat to us. So these mirror neurons play a key role in mitigating potential risks especially in social interaction.
This also may help explain why it is that there are certain people that when we hear from them or seem them, we instinctively smile, get excited and want to run towards them. These folks represent, as picked up by the neurons, a very safe (non-threatening) experience. I doubt that when any of us runs to people like these, we consciously say “Oh there is Sally. She is a very good friend. I want to hang out with her.” No–we are designed to skip through this time-consuming activity (as a survival instinct) and simply smile and embrace Sally.
Pay attention to yourself in social settings this week. Watch how people impact you, positively and negatively. See how powerful these mirror neurons are. By being aware of this, you allow yourself to be much more selective in orchestrating more positive experiences, and managing difficult ones. Each experience has a chemical reaction (emotional change) in your body, and being able to regulate both the experiences and the reaction to the initial instinctive reaction is at the heart of Emotional Intelligence.