Emotional Intelligence and Mirror Neurons

Emotional intelligence has two sides to it:

  • being able to observe and understand your own emotions
  • being able to perceive, observe and read the emotions of others.

We humans have the amazing ability to perceive the emotions of others. This unique ability, that characterises us as humans, is called empathy. There is an actual neurological basis in our brain that underlies this ability to be emphatic. It is still a fairly recent discovery in neuroscience. It is called Mirror Neurons.

We have so-called mirror neurons in our brain that cause us to feel what other people are feeling. Either if these people are near us, or on the screen such as in movies. Have you ever wept at a movie? Been stirred by a passionate kiss? Been scared whilst watching a horror movie? Whatever emotion that you are feeling while observing someone else, on or off the screen, is purely activated by observing someone else. This is significant and profound.

We have one hundred billion neurons in our brain. And they all interact with each other constantly. When you pick up a spoon, the neurons in your brain that correspond to that hand movement begin to fire. However, there is a subset of neurons that fire if you observe someone else picking up a spoon, without lifting a finger yourself. So your brain fires as though you picked up that spoon yourself.

These mirror neurons are action neurons, and according to neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilayanur_S._Ramachandran) they played a vital role in aiding our evolution by allowing us to imitate others, such as our parents and teachers, and allowed us to quickly pick up skills through imitation and observation.

Then there is another type of mirror neurons. These are emphatic mirror neurons. This means they cause us to experience the emotions felt by others simply by observing them. Our brain cannot tell the difference between feeling our own feelings and having our feelings activated by observing others.

 

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Richard Hill, speaker, author and psychotherapist, says that our brains – we – are hardwired to be emphatic. (www.richardhill.com.au). We perceive what others are feeling. This is one of the reasons why sports are so popular. You just have to watch people watching a sports game, the level of passion that gets aroused just sitting in an armchair. These are our mirror neurons at work.

We cannot turn our mirror neurons on an off. We have no control over them, as they are hardwired. They function all the time and cause us to feel what others are feeling, whether you want to or not. Now this is important information. For example, we know that stress is bad for us. It activates our flight or fight mode with all the negative consequences that entails. Now, our fight or flight mode can be activated by observing another in the stress mode, and picking up their emotional signature. You may want to change your actions in accord with that knowledge. Is it beneficial for you to watch sensational news reports for extended periods of time? Do you want to spend lengthy periods of time in the company of someone who is angry?

Mirror neurons function all the time. Being emotionally intelligent means we are aware of this and know that some of the feelings we are feeling are actually activated by our mirror neurons. We can then act accordingly. Either avoid or minimise situations that trigger our stress mode or realise that tension within us may not be our own.

Of course there are many situations in life where we cannot avoid feeling the emotions and pain of others. My biggest hurdle in recovering from the loss of my husband was to overcome the memories that were stored in my body and mind from having witnessed Mark in extreme pain for over four months continually. Whenever I entered the hospital room and saw and heard Mark in agonising pain, I felt his pain. And after Mark passed away, I was still overcome by the extreme level of suffering he had experienced. Because we automatically feel what others are feeling and experiencing, especially a beloved husband, we experience their pain.

We also experience our loved ones joy. It works both ways. Have you ever felt happy and uplifted in the company of someone who is genuinely happy and joyful? That’s because our emotions are contagious. Surrounding yourself with content people will rub off.

If you want to build your emotional intelligence and awareness, then knowing about and being aware of our mirror neurons is important.

Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal and Reflection

Making sense of change