The Mirror in Us: Mirror Neurons & Workplace Relationships

“We use the same cells to build a sense of self, since these cells originate early in life when other people’s behavior is the reflection of our own behavior. In other people, we see ourselves with mirror neurons.”

Marco Iacoboni, author, Mirroring People, The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others

Emotions and actions are powerfully contagious. When we see someone laugh, cry, show disgust and experience pain, in some sense we share those feelings. When we see a great actor, musician or athlete perform at the peak of their abilities, it can feel like we are experiencing something of what they feel.

In the 1990’s when a research team at the University of Parma, lead by neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti, made the serendipitous discovery of “mirror neurons,” a new revolution in our understanding of humans as social beings began. Since that time, neuroscience findings have helped us to appreciate the implications of the powerful sharing of experience.
Relationships are all about connecting with others.  However, very few people consciously think about how relationships are formed. When relationships are working, there is a tendency to take them for granted and not think about how they’ve been established.
When our relationships start to fragment and hit bumpy roads, we might give the nature of the relationship some deeper thought. But, the level of thought is more inclined to reflect our anger or disappointment and some unconscious need that’s not being fulfilled. Looking through the lens of mirror neurons gives us an entirely new way of seeing how relationships work.  Mirror neurons are those neurons in the brain’s frontal cortex that when activated, result in imitation or mimicry that many scientists now believe is the foundation of empathy. These neurons map actions we see others perform onto our brain circuitry. They fire both when you do something and when you see someone else do something. The scientific understanding of this phenomenon is young, and we will undoubtedly learn more about why and when this neural wiring is activated. Already, we know that movement alone is not the only activator. Sound also plays a role in the process providing us with an “embodied simulation” of the experience.

While many factors play a role in relationships, think of mirror neurons  as a hard drive in the formation and maintenance of social communication. Our needs, values, beliefs and their manifestations, on the other hand, are the software programs that determine the quality and nature of our relationships. While we strive to maintain our individuality as we go about our daily activities, the reality is that we live our lives in relationship to others. Their behavior and actions affect how we think, what we feel and what we do. It is impossible to separate us from our biological evolution as social beings. And, so have our brains evolved as social entities. From a neuroscience perspective, we’re all connected… brain to brain.

In his book on Mirror Neurons, UCLA neuroscientist, Marco Iacoboni, cites an experiment that illustrates the impact mirror neurons have on us starting with our earliest experiences. In the study, two children were placed in a room filled with two of each of many different objects. Researchers found that when one child put on a cowboy hat on, the other child did too. When one played with a particular toy, the other soon followed. In order to understand the essence of our relationships, we not only need to be attentive to our inner and interpersonal communication, but also to appreciate that our brains coexist with other brains.

How Mirror Neurons Work 

As we interact with others our communication occurs on three levels: body language, words that reflect content and vocal patterns (volume, tempo, etc.). These are the communication “delivery” systems that we use to communicate our intentions consciously, or most likely, unconsciously. At the same time, we interpret the intentions of others as a result of the mirror neuronal circuits of our brain being activated. These circuits respond to body language, facial expressions and gestures; in general any intentional movement occurring in the other person.
For instance, when I see you frustrated, my mirror neuron circuitry for frustration is activated, evoking feelings associated with frustration. At the same time, I perceive the movement/ expressions on your face, which drive the same motor responses on my face. This information is transmitted through the insula in the brain, which acts like a bridge between the limbic brain (the emotional center) and the mirror neurons.

This bi-directional flow of information comes through our five senses into our bodies, is transmitted upward to our brains and then travels downward back to the body. So, we’re not simply “mindreading” other’s brains, we are mind-embodying their experience.  I believe that we can’t experience another person’s emotional state unless somewhere in our biology we have experienced and have a language for that emotion within ourselves. After all, how can I experience another’s joy unless I have an experience that I’ve labeled joy and am able to “imitate” that experience myself?

Becoming more competent in emotional literacy expands the language you have for describing your emotions and deepens your self-awareness and understanding of other’s emotions.
When we’re mindful of our experience in the moment we have the opportunity to use our understanding of mirror neurons – as the trigger of that experience – and learn more about ourselves in the process.  For example, I can then ask, What can I learn about myself as I feel the anger rising in me, as I see your anger?”

How Awareness of Mirror Neurons Can Benefit Your Workplace Relationships

  • Mirror neurons not only enable us to “imitate’ other’s actions; they also enable us to mirror other’s intentions and emotions as well. While it’s true that there is still an interpretative component when we “infer” others’ intentions and feelings, we can use  the guidance our mirror neuronal responses to empathize and gain a better understanding of other’s thinking and emotional states.
  • Understanding mirror neurons, you can act in ways that may influence positive emotional responses. In doing so you are increasing the likelihood of emotional attunement and enhancing relationship building in the process. This translates into shared meaning and connection that deepens the rapport you have with others.  Discoveries in the science of mirror neurons have shown that mimicry is powerfully hard-wired so that we may take our cues for action from a deeper place of emotional arousal.
  • People in the workplace want their relationships to be authentic and positive and will respond negatively to anxiety, anger, vacillation, and defensiveness. Having the awareness that our non-verbal and verbal patterns are being “imitated” in the other person puts the responsibility on our shoulders to communicate and act in ways that move people toward us.

There is a definite connection between mirror neurons, mindfulness practice and empathy. Using our understanding of mirror neurons and being able to tune into and reflect on our emotional state enables us to shift our attention appropriately between self and other. It is the blueprint for a deeper understanding of others and relationship building.
Part of the Italian team that discovered mirror neurons, neurophysiologist, Vittorio Gallese, suggests that we live in a “we-centric” space. Understanding of mirror neurons is not only changing the idea of how we see others, but how we understand the concept of “self.”  Modern life and business has been shaped by the belief that we are totally individualistic – “islands” unto ourselves – and that that self and others are completely differentiated. Recent science is changing ideas that have governed our ideas about human dynamics for centuries. According to Gallese, “By means of a shared neural state realized in two different bodies that nevertheless obey the same functional rules, the “objectual other” becomes “another self.”

We can now begin to imagine what the world of work would look – and feel like – if this was the organizing principle of all of our relationships.

Thanks for reading.

George Altman Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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  1. Ronnie Ann says:

    Great article! I love the idea of a “we-centric” workplace. Thank you George for writing about such an important concept. I can just imagine the difference in results – productivity as well quality of work environment – when a leader sets out with this goal in mind.
    This started me thinking about how “negativity” is received in the workplace. I put quotes around the word because some places find any disagreement as negative, while others welcome the diversity of ideas, especially if the intent is ultimately positive. Could there be mirrored neurons at work here in a slightly different way? Are bosses perhaps over-zealous watch dogs at times, going too far in trying to prevent “negativity” contagion either for their workers of themselves? Perhaps deflection becomes almost automatic, with bosses or co-workers not wanting to mirror any doubt within themselves (missing and/or dampening important input in the process), since they haven’t been trained how to handle or even recognize it?
    Curious if you’ve had any experience with this you’d like to share.

    • Hi Ronnie. Thanks for the response and question.
      For sure, bosses can be over-zealous and often to the point of sacrificing authenticity. As you indicated by placing quotes around the word negativity, I think it’s important for a boss to be aware of his/her interpretation of negativity. It seems to me, in the language of mirror neurons, that all roads to lead to mindfulness – having the ability to be self-reflective. The response in your hypothetical boss could indicate a person out of touch with his/her own feelings. The findings so far on mirror neurons (much research is still needed) suggest that what’s always being “registered” in the body are feelings – it’s the cognitive intepretation that varies. You’re right “deflection” does become habituated as a self-protective mechanism – only cognitive awareness can begin to replace that response with new neural activity.
      Hope my response speaks to your question.

  2. I’m so intrigued by how neurology is becoming mainstream. I think workers and employers are becoming more and more sophisticated (with some exceptions, of course). It’s fascinating and such important knowledge. The more we understand ourselves and our relationships with each other, the stronger our empathy and compassion responses will become (I hope!)…and there is a very important place for these qualities in the workplace…many of us would even predict that it will increase the bottom line.
    Thanks, as always, for a substantive and interesting post.

    • Hi Terry,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes neuroscience is increasingly popular – but certainly hope it is more than that – because the entire culture will benefit from that knowledge.
      It’s often amazing to us how little self-knowledge organizations and leaders have about human dynamics. I think the most exciting and far reaching finding in neuroscience has been the realization of the social brain. This really challenges the dominant world view that we’re simply competitive, aggressive and self-serving. I agree that developing the emotions of empathy and compassion (ideally as children) can basically alter the entire nature of the workplace. There’s no question in my mind that would significantly improve any organization’s bottom line.
      George Altman

  3. Marcos Fernando says:

    Thank you for the knowledge generated. I see more clearly the world as my mirror. Some ancient philosophers have said, “the other is a reflection of you.”

  4. Gloria Harmony says:

    As a point of interest, there is recent work done by Axiogenics, LLC which has incorporated the findings of neuro-axiology and the part mirror neurons may play relative to individual behaviors and organizational leadership. It is incredibly interesting work that provides an ability to measure changes against a values hierarchy. While I just recently became aware of this information, I believe there is indeed the potential to have phenomenal positive impact to organizational cultures – and beyond. It is interesting that enlightening discoveries can have a duality in that they bring expansive new knowledge and insight, while at the same time showing us how much we have yet to know.

    • Gloria,
      Thank you for the comment and the info.
      I think all of this fascinating neuroscience knowledge is opening one door after another to new discoveries. And yes, it would be very interesting to measure
      this information in relation to values. My sense is that it is all mitigated by our cognitive awareness, but of course we have no idea how deep that goes.
      I’d be very interested in any links you might have to learn more about these findings.
      Thanks again for reading and commenting,
      George Altman

  5. Fascinating article and feel a vague satisfaction when science supports a more communal approach to working and living together. I spent quite a bit of time working in Japan and found the care and attention paid to the spaces between people so inspirational. They have an innate cultural understanding of space (wa, ba, ka) that is far beyond how we in the West cognitively construct interactions.

    • Jerrold,
      Pleased to get your comment. Love the concept of the “spaces between people.” Interesting that science is becoming a major source of understanding our “communal” brains. I hope you’ll read the latest post on the social dimensions of the brain, termed SCARF by author David Rock (Your Brain at Work).
      Thanks again,

  6. Great article and I coments by all. I will include a link to this aritcle when I discuss mirrored neurons and reciprocity.

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