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.



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

Why does Emotional Intelligence Matter?

It is quite possible to have a high IQ and low emotional intelligence(EQ). Intelligence and EQ are completely separate skills. Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, understand and evaluate emotions and to act accordingly. And although it comes easier to some people than others, everyone can learn emotional competence and improve their understanding of their own and others’ emotions.

Why does emotional intelligence matter so much? Because everything we do, every thought, decision and goal is underpinned by our emotions. We are biologically hardwired to be emotional beings. You cannot switch off your emotions. But you can learn to observe them and to control your attention. We do not work like clockwork. Thankfully. Our emotions make us human and unique.


lacking emotions

We have so-called mirror neurons which cause us to feel what others are feeling. I’ll explain more about our mirror neurons in the next post. For now I want to highlight that we cannot turn our mirror neurons off. That is to say we are always feeling what others in our immediate environment are feeling, whether we are aware of it or not. This is one of the reasons why it feels so good to be in the company of a happy, content person. It rubs off!

Have you ever cried at a movie? That’s your mirror neurons at work. You empathise with the character, you feel what they are feeling on screen. Or have you experienced your stomach tightening whilst watching an angry person in the news? In view of the fact that we cannot turn off this in-built and ongoing behind the scenes ‘feelomether’ it is very important to be able to read the emotions of others and yourself.

Let’s say you are in a meeting and your boss is having an off day. This is not the time to ask for a pay-rise no matter how much you’ve set your mind to do it today, or to bring up your new ideas for the project you are working on. Wait for another time when your boss is feeling not angry or frustrated. Of course his or her anger could be not work-related, but it is not possible to separate us into the work-self and the private-self. We can fulfill separate roles, and we can temporarily put our attention on work and put our home worries on the back-burner enough to concentrate on work. However, this depends on the level of non-work stress. There is a tipping point whereby the stress is too intense for us to be able to focus on something else. But sooner or later all stress will make itself known. This is why you have to be able to read your own emotions, so that you can learn to observe your emotions rather than to suppress them and turn them into a time-bomb.

Also, if you have stress at work, you can’t just switch this off completely at home, your partner will feel your tenseness the minute you walk through the door. We emit our feelings into our environment like a radio station broadcasting their waves. It is impossible to switch off our personal broadcast!


 Broadcasting emotions



This happens whether you are aware of your emotions, or those of others, or not. The difference with emotional intelligence is that you can observe and recognise emotions and act accordingly. Choose the time wisely when you want to discuss something important to you with someone else, your partner, your boss, your colleague, your child or friend – if they are feeling upset or angry or frustrated, that means their fight or flight mode is activated and they are not able to listen properly and give you their full attention.

The key to happiness, contentment and fulfilling your potential is emotional intelligence. You cannot bypass your emotions on route to good health and success.


Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection

Making sense of change

Emotional health and the integration of our experiences



Whilst kayaking on the river the other day I was really taking note of the movement of the water. I was about half a kilometre off shore and observed the large body of water that surrounded me. There were picture book conditions: a bright blue luminous sky coupled with a still surface. Yet there were constant small movements of this enormous amount of water I was hovering on. Suddenly waves came seemingly out of no-where. Surprised I looked around for the source of the waves, yet to my astonishment I could not see any boat, jet ski or the like. During the rest of my paddling this happened again a couple times. Intrigued I started to think about the flow of water. What happens at one end of any body of water, even a large one, effects other parts even if they are so far away that they are out of sight.

This was a visual reminder for me how our entire body system is connected to and affected by our emotions.

Emotions have always been likened to water. And our bodies are made up of about 70 % of water. Watching the flow of water in a river or the ocean is a good reminder of how everything in our bodies flows as well – our entire internal body communication system relies on the flow of energy.

Speaking of flow, our brain is also the flow of energy. It flows whether you like it or not. There are basically two states of flow:

–       an integrated flow

–       a disintegrated flow

Our emotional health – and our physical wellbeing – is dependent on an integrated flow.

An integrated flow goes hand in hand with positive emotion.

Negative emotion is a signpost for a disintegrated flow.

Many physiological processes happen on autopilot; whether they are integrated or disintegrated, they will go unnoticed by the conscious mind.

Now, a mindset is a process that regulates the flow of energy and information. This means that the way you look at something, your perspective, influences whether the flow is integrated or disintegrated.

Neurobiofeedback is the capacity of the brain to take a thinking process and to change the body.

Your thoughts literally change your body.

We all have disintegrated brain sequences, based on our life-long experiences. But here is the good news:

Our brains are plastic!

This means that our brains can change, in particular the neural pathways can change and new pathways can be created. Our brain is not set in stone. It can be altered.

There are 100 billion neurons in the brain. The brain has the capacity to create new neural pathways quickly. It does this on the basis of experience and repetition. The more a thought is repeated, the stronger the neural pathway becomes.

This also works the other way: if you don’t use your neural pathway, you lose it. That is to say if a particular skill or way of thinking benefits you, or you simply like it, it will wither away if you neglect it. The neural pathway will shrink.

Because our brains are plastic, disintegrated experiences and brain sequences can be re-integrated.

Our emotional health depends upon this integration.

You cannot pretend an emotion into oblivion. It affects not only your awareness and mood, but also your physical health and the functioning of your entire body system, including digestion, blood flow to your organs, including your brain and therefore your ability to reason, etc.

You cannot resist an emotion away. But you can allow it to be – in other words to feel it – and it will dissipate.

Kayaking is a visual example of this. When I first got onto my kayak, which isn’t stable in choppy waters (it glides smoothly and fast through calm waters though), even small waves really rocked my boat. Head-on waves were alright, but when they come from the side – a bit like emotions coming out of left field taking us by surprise – they are very challenging. Initially I got worried. It was an unpleasant feeling. Then I learned to loosen the hips and to allow the kayak to go with the flow of the waves. To let myself be rocked from side to side. Voila, the waves were no longer scary, no longer a threat of toppling me over. (I’m going kayaking on the river, although a tidal river, not to be compared with ocean waves). Sure, the waves slow me down; in fact, if they are strong I need to stop until they have disappeared. But I have recently developed an attitude whereby I enjoy whatever comes my way during kayaking. Mostly anyway. The other day I got a bit frustrated with all the waves made by skiboats, especially if the boats come pretty close. However, shortly afterwards I was rewarded with some magic: three dolphins surfaced very close to me. Two of them proceeded to dive right under my kayak. Wow.

Kayaking is a good reminder to go with the flow. You cannot stop the flow anyway, in the same way that you can’t stop waves, but you can have a mindset that allows the flow to integrate, thereby supporting contentment and a thriving life. Equally you can stop the flow from integrating, thereby harming your emotional and physical wellbeing. You cannot control everything, but you can develop a mindset that supports your wellbeing, that allows your emotions to be, to come and go like the waves instead of locking them into your cells through suppression.

May you develop this new muscle of going with the flow – it’s like riding a bike, you won’t enter the Tour de France overnight, but hey, you are getting better and better with practice. Perhaps 2013 could be the year of going with the flow.


Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection

Making sense of change

Dare To Say Yes

Daring to say yes is very powerful on many different levels: psychologically, mentally, emotionally, and – few people are aware of this fact – neurologically.

Robert Hill is a psychologist who specialises in neurobiology. Robert is a member of an international research group as well as an international trainer. He is engaged in the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology – IPBN. In one of his seminars on IPBN he highlights the power and the importance of saying yes.

According to Robert Hill, saying YES opens up an entire neurophysiological state of being that is very different from saying No:

Daring to say yes is like turning the light-switch on:  the current flows, paving the way for relaxation, good digestion, smooth functioning of the various body systems

*  Saying yes actives the beneficial part of the nervous system: the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS)  – its main job is relaxation and digestion, in other words: the antidote to stress

*  Saying yes actives our social engagement system

Our social engagement system is biologically hardwired – that means it is a fundamental, quintessential part of being human. We are biologically and neurologically meant to relate to others. More on that in later posts.


By contrast, saying no:

*  Activates the sympathetic nervous system. Its main job is to set off our fight or flight response, which has also been called the     acute stress response.

*  This stress response entails a whole range of negative effects on the human body such as physiological responses:

–       acceleration of the heart beat

–       Inhibition of stomach action to the point where digestion stops

–       Constriction of the blood supply to the major organs

–       Loss of hearing or peripheral vision (tunnel vision) to name but a few


        Emotional and mental responses to acute stress such as

–       aggression

–       anger

–       withdrawal

–       substance abuse and

–       addictions

Robert Hill points out that saying no actually sounds rigid, it indicates stopping and opposing. It actually has physical effects in the body of the listener. Take note next time someone says a vehement NO. Observe your reaction – you might find that your shoulders are hunched or your stomach tightened. This means emotional healing and wellbeing cannot take place when you are stressed.

The Mind Science Institute 

In prehistoric times, the fight or flight response served as an important strategy for survival. Nowadays, a wide range of triggers set off the fight or flight response with dire consequences for our physical and internal wellbeing. The fight or flight response was not designed for the stresses of modern times.


It is clear then that learning to say yes is an important life skill and state of mind.  

So what am I asking you to say yes to? Your wellbeing. Thriving in life. Emotional freedom. I’m suggesting that you might dare to say yes to YOU. I believe that it is crucial in life to be authentic. Society teaches us that selfishness is bad. And what is considered as ‘selfish’ ranges from not sharing lollies to refusing to act out of obligation. There is a large grey area regarding what is selfish and what is not.

I am, however,  talking about SELF-CARE. Because that is what saying yes to you, to a life filled with contentment and joy, is all about. It is caring for your self. And from this place of caring for and about yourself you also open the gateway for others to do the same: to care for themselves. Self-care feels good and does not harm others in any way. Classical ‘selfishness’ does not feel good.

And here we are right back at our emotions: your emotions will definitely be able to tell you unwaveringly if you are caring for the self: because it feels good! It gives you juice. You are inspired. Time flies by.

By contrast, being selfish might make you feel guilty and angry with yourself. It doesn’t foster self-esteem. Or if you acted out of mere obligation you’ll end up feeling bad for abandoning your self.


We have a lot of no’s in our world. We need more ‘yes’ in our lives and in our world.

What might you dare to say yes to?

Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection

Making sense of change

Emotional Healing involves going with the flow of your Emotions

I have just come back from kayaking on the river. The picture perfect conditions made my heart sing. The water was smooth and calm, only disrupted by the occasional waves stemming from other boats. My kayak was gliding through the water with little effort. The feeling of freedom was accentuated by the gentle splash my paddle made with each immersion in the water.

This, I thought, is like going with the flow of your emotions. Of course it is much easier when things ‘go smoothly’, when we don’t face intense emotions that create big waves in our calm waters.

Intense emotions, like big waves, can make it hard to stay upright.



They can topple us over. Literally.


It’s a lot harder to get back on our feet once we’ve been knocked over. I would really like to stress here, though, that our emotions are not our enemy; on the contrary, they are our friends. They are the messengers that send us information about what’s happening in our subconscious mind. Bearing in mind that over 95% of our beliefs reside in our subconscious, this is very useful information to have.

Going with the flow of your emotions, even when the going gets tough, and the waves get bigger and bigger, is the most beneficial way of relating to your emotions. Engage with them. Allow them to be. Resisting and fighting against your emotions will not make them go away. On the contrary. It will glue you to them like superglue. There is no point then in shooting the messenger. It’s like holding the postman responsible for the content of the letters he delivers. Another messenger will come along anyway, and another, and they will come more frequently and with more intensity.

The more you resist your emotions, the more frequently they will find their way into your life. If you resist anger for example, all of the sudden you might find yourself subjected to bad drivers who cut in on you, ants all of the sudden decide to build a road across your kitchen bench, then you loose your car key and you don’t have a replacement to disable your immobiliser, so your car needs to be towed and you are up for hundreds of dollars to replace the immobiliser. What’s next? Perhaps a close friend betrays you……….Or you miss out on the project at work that you hoped would be give to you. Perhaps not only were you overlooked, your colleague who knocks off work at 4 pm every day was the one who got awarded this project – your dream project that’s right up your alley. 

Emotional healing and emotional thriving require us to listen to the message our emotions carry. Paying attention to the message will lead the way to releasing suppressed emotions. In other words, emotional freedom.

Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Making sense of change

How do you go about Emotional Healing?


Let’s say you have recognised that emotional healing is crucial to your wellbeing and a contented, peaceful life. But now you are faced with the million dollar question: how do you actually go about emotional healing.

The main reason why I want to share my personal story of the traumatic illness of my late husband and my own recovery from that loss and trauma is this: I would like to plant the seed in you that emotional healing is possible. I am not saying it’s easy or smooth or fast. But it is my hope that you might open the door to possibilities.

Today as I write this article I can say that I am happier within myself than I have ever been. This inner connectedness and fulfilment does not erase my pain of loss. But the pain of loss no longer erases my happiness. The two co-exist.

I feel so strongly about sharing my story of loss, recovery and emotional healing that I am writing a memoir about it. I believe that emotional wellbeing is possible, even after experiencing trauma. It is important to be aware though that emotional healing and wellbeing is not something that happens by accident. It is an art. Even the most talented artists don’t become masters without practice. Emotional wellbeing needs to be nurtured. It needs to be given attention and input.

There are steps that you can take to consciously bring contentment, fulfilment and joy as a state of being into your life. It’s a gradual process. Immediate change bit by bit. Also, remember, you don’t have to do it on your own. Emotional support is available. This may be through friends or a professional who is trained in being able to offer guidance, care and resources. When seeking emotional support from people that are close to you, be aware that your friends and family are emotionally connected to you. If they care about you deeply, your distress may cause them distress. Also, they bring their own set of beliefs and points of view to the situation you wish to resolve, and this may present a roadblock to your own recovery. This is not necessarily the case; it very much depends on the situation and the person. Friends can be an enormous support. You just need to be aware that they are not neutral towards the situation.

I had incredible emotional support from one girlfriend in particular. Whilst my husband was in hospital, almost every day, certainly every week dramatic and often traumatic incidences happened. Because he was locked in his body, unable to move  at all, so much started to go wrong with his body. His muscles began to contract wildly causing enormous pain. I was a layperson, without any medical knowledge. I would be given snippets of information from a registrar, then other information from a specialist and yet different info from a nurse. The most disheartening thing was the negativity from many doctors with which I was confronted, causing additional and unnecessary heartache.

Here is one of many incidences. My husband had a tracheostomy[i] as he could not breathe on his own. One day I was told that he could have the tube removed. This, I was informed, involved the physiotherapist slowly weaning him off the tracheostomy tube. The process was started. One morning, the registrar made a point to see me in order to tell me that he thought the removal of the tracheostomy tube was not going well and that I should know that “your husband may never have it removed”. This was extremely distressing as my husband’s transfer from the hospital to the rehabilitation clinic was conditional upon the removal of the tube. Otherwise – where would he go?? The thought of my husband living in an aged care facility at age 42 was too much to bear. No other facility offers rehabilitation such as highly specialised physiotherapy – and with it hope for any future quality of life. I was shattered and devastated by this news that he may never have it removed. Shortly after receiving this news, the physiotherapist informed me that the weaning process was going well. (Weaning refers to the process of learning to breathe without the tube). The tube was removed.

During these distressing times which occurred regularly and frequently over the nearly eight months that my husband was locked into his body I needed someone to talk to about my despair and shattered hope. I had never experienced despair in my life before. My girlfriend was always there to listen with incredible empathy. Not that many people have the gift to offer such a level of empathy. I was fortunate to have such a good friend who showed up for me in such a caring and supportive way.

I would like to share the tools how I personally recovered and healed from my trauma. There are tangible things you can do to address your emotional wounding. Here are 7 signposts to guide your way towards emotional healing and wellbeing.

1. Decide To Be Happy
    You must decide that you really want happiness in your life.

    No-one else can make that decision for you

2. Gratitude
    Appreciate whatever is wonderful in your life, however small, every day.

3. Releasing Resistance
    This is the path to inner freedom. It takes courage & willingness to let go.

4. Accept Where You Are Right Now
    Accept all of your emotions, desires & mistakes– they require no justification.

5. Embrace Your Emotions
    Your emotions are your GPS system into your heart and subconscious

6. Have An Optimistic Attitude Towards Your Life
     An optimistic attitude means that you expect good things to happen to you

7. Forgive Others Who Have Wronged You

     Holding onto blame and anger is detrimental to your wellbeing.

     Feel the hurt or rage when it occurs appropriately to an experience – and then let it go.


Every journey starts with its first step. It is much easier to walk a clearly sign-posted path than to stumble aimlessly through the bush. Your emotional healing will not happen overnight but gradually. Please bear in mind that each step that you take does make a difference. Also, remember to seek emotional support. We are social beings interconnected in a tight web with others. Emotional support will ease your process of recovery.

I will be addressing each of these points separately over the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

[i] “A tracheostomy (TRA-ke-OS-to-me) is a surgically made hole that goes through the front of your neck and into your trachea (TRA-ke-ah), or windpipe. The hole is made to help you breathe.”


How do you deal with unwanted negative emotions?


What do we do when we experience unwanted negative emotions? Especially if they are intense. There are many more ‘negative emotions’ than positive emotions. Negative emotions range from mildly uncomfortable to deeply upsetting and distressing. Most of us react with fear to strong negative emotions – negative emotions can make us feel as though we are out of control, as though our emotion controls us in that moment. Feeling out of control is very scary.

When my late husband was ill, locked in his own body, unable to move or speak, I felt very much out of control. I did not know if he would live or die. My emotions were as intense as an elastic band stretched to its outermost limits. I had absolutely no idea what our future as a family would hold. I was in a continuous, never relenting state of emergency. My body was actually in a continuous fight or flight mode, which put enormous pressure on my body. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Going to the hospital for several hours each day and raising two primary school aged children who were dealing with their father’s distressing illness was a juggling act. This was an extreme situation, but life  throws many different experiences in our direction that evoke strong emotions in us. As human beings, we are emotional beings. Without emotions we wouldn’t be who we are.

I’d like to share this video of Nick Vujicic, an extra–ordinary 29 year old Australian man who was born without arms or legs. Coming to terms with his disability during school years was very difficult for Nick. He even contemplated suicide at the young age of 10. He changed the way he viewed himself after reading a newspaper article about a man with a severe disability as he  realised that he could make a difference though his uniqueness.  At only 17 Nick founded his own non-for-profit organisation called ‘Life without Limbs’.  After obtaining a university degree with a double major in accountancy and financial planning, Nick became a motivational speaker who travels the world. He addresses schools and corporate audiences.



Don’t you think that Nick would experience some pretty intense emotions? Irrespective of his incredibly positive attitude towards life, his every day life entails struggle. He cannot brush his teeth, tie his shoelaces, go to the toilet on his own… Now sometimes that would have to be frustrating or upsetting.

What do you do if you feel an unwelcome emotion? The most beneficial way that will support your emotional wellbeing is to engage with your emotion. By this I mean, you stop (if it’s possible) and give yourself a bit of time to be aware of the emotion you are feeling. If you have the opportunity, you may wish to pay attention to your body, to notice where you hold tension. Once you have become aware of your physical reaction, and have allowed the emotion to surface, it will dissipate.


Here is the thing about unwelcome and frightening emotions: once you genuinely allow an emotion to express itself, that is to say you really feel that emotion, it will disappear. It is only your resistance that will lock that emotion into your body and emotional body. What is surprising in this process is that you don’t have to feel an emotion for a long time for it to go away. Most people are generally not aware of this. That moment of feeling your emotion can be very short. What matters is that you feel it without resistance. That is the key to unlocking your emotion. You allow your emotion to be. This is the path to emotional healing and genuine wellbeing.