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An introduction to mirror neurons

Empathy is a fundamentally human trait. We’re a highly social species, connecting and learning from one other by reading and copying facial expressions and movements.

Recent studies in neuroscience have shed further light on these interactions, revealing that when we watch someone doing something, cells in our brain fire in the same way as if we were doing it ourselves.  A set of brain cells found on either side of our head, known as mirror neurons, are fundamental to this process. We learn by looking and copying, which means when we see someone doing an action, we can learn how to do it too by imagining and sharing their experience.

Research also suggests that these neurons also enable us to mirror other people’s feelings and connect emotionally by sending messages to the emotional or limbic part of the brain, so it seems mirror neurons are key not only to how we learn, but also how we experience the world around us and build good relationships with others.

Want more? Here’s a great PBS video introduction to mirror neurons.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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Can you catch happiness?

If you had a virus you would probably want to avoid passing it on to friends and colleagues, but did you know emotion travels over social networks in much the same way viruses do?

That’s not to say emotions are like diseases of course: being grumpy won’t make you or the people around you sick. But research shows that wellbeing is shared within networks and spreads based on social ties, so your wellbeing can have a direct impact on the people around you – not just with friends and family, but in work too.

Low wellbeing in workplaces is associated with a range of health and business problems such as increased absences, lower productivity and higher health insurance costs, so focusing on improving the wellbeing of employees is important for the bottom line as well as its ethical implications.

Make emotional contagion work for you: if you run a business, boosting the wellbeing of staff could result in a contagion with positive implications for the overall health of the business, in all senses. You can use this principle in all your relationships too: are you spreading good moods, or bringing people down? So think about what moods your people are passing on, to friends, colleagues and customers, and harness emotional contagion to benefit everyone.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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The Downsides of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is often touted as the key to personal and professional success, but it can also have its dark side.

Research suggests that when people have self-serving motives, emotional intelligence can become a weapon for manipulating others. In a work context, employees who engage in the most harmful behaviour often possess high emotional intelligence, which they use for personal gain. People who are good at controlling their own emotions can disguise their true feelings and when they understand what others are feeling they can motivate them to act against their own best interests. In terms of leadership there can be a fine line between motivation and manipulation (Adolf Hitler’s speeches displayed high levels of ‘emotional intelligence’, for example).

Studies have also revealed that high emotional intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate to better performance. Being able to read and regulate emotions is a clear plus for jobs requiring attention to emotions (e.g. sales reps, call centre staff, counsellors, managers). However, for jobs that have fewer emotional demands (e.g. mechanics, scientists, accountants) it seems that the more emotionally intelligent an employee, the lower their performance. In this context the ability to read facial expressions, body language and vocal tones appears to be more of a distraction than an asset.

Being able to understand and manage our emotions can be a powerful tool, but it’s worth bearing in mind that like any skill, emotional intelligence may not always be associated with good intent. Always use your powers to improve the lives and emotional states of people around you – because how they feel affects you too!

Read more about the dark side of emotional intelligence in The Atlantic.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.