As the story goes, nearly 80 years ago on the Faroe Islands — a stark North Atlantic archipelago 200 miles off the coast of Scotland — a neurologic epidemic may have washed, or rather convoyed, ashore. Before 1940 the incidence of multiple sclerosis on the Faroes was near, if not actually, zero, according to the tantalizing lore I recall from medical school. Yet in the years following British occupation of the islands during World War II, the rate of MS rose dramatically, leading many researchers to assume the outbreak was caused by some unknown germ transmitted by the foreign soldiers……..
How do we understand others when we haven’t experienced what they’re going through? How are we able to share in the joy and sadness of those around us? Why do some people seem so adept at suspending personal judgment, seeing through the masks we wear to the authentic self?
Science believes they’ve discovered the part of our brains that makes this important human connection possible. Let’s take a look at what they’ve discovered.
What Is the Mirror Neuron System?
Scientists have found that each of us has a highly specialized group of brain cells called mirror neurons. Their role in the body is to learn about things by mimicking them. It’s how we each learned to speak, eat or do anything.
In terms of empathy, we learn how someone is feeling by reflecting the emotions that we see in others.
Sometimes this mirroring even takes on a physical shape. You may have noticed how a very empathic person tends to turn toward the person they’re connecting with. They put their devices down, giving their full attention.
They may even mimic body movements like facial expressions, crossed legs, posture or hand gestures without being consciously aware they’re doing it.
How the Mirror Neuron System Regulates Empathy
When someone with a very active mirror neuron system sees someone who’s grieving or nervous (fearful), for example, they can actually feel it too through this reflection process. They respond by trying to comfort the person feeling these uncomfortable emotions. In doing so, the person being comforted often begins to feel a little better.
As the subject of the empathy feels better, the empathic person feels better as well.
How the Mirror Neuron System Becomes Disrupted
At a very basic level, the brain works on an internal reward system. When we do things that our brain considers good for us like exercise, the brain releases endorphins (happiness hormones) into the body.
Research shows that when we use the mirror neuron system to show compassion, our brain releases these hormones. Not only does the empathic person feel better because the person they’re connecting with feels better, they feel good because their brain released endorphins into the body.
This system may become disrupted if in the past their compassion was met with distrust, fear or even negative consequences. This may have happened in their family home. It may have occurred during a long-term, abusive relationship. Or they may have worked in an unempathic work environment.
A person can learn to deactivate this part of their brain because of the negative external consequences for using it.
A person with a less active mirror neuron system might be referred to as emotionally “numb”. This “numbness” may even be encouraged in a company.
A manager may consciously or subconsciously reward people who appear “thick-skinned” and “unaffected” in respect to their work environment. They perceive this person as more productive. However, Research shows the opposite is true.
How the Mirror Neuron System Is Strengthened
It’s a nature versus nurture argument question. Studies show that around 50% of empathy is neurological while the other 50% is cultivated through the environment.
A person in a healthy, empathic work environment can strengthen this dormant part of the brain. Consistent positive re-enforcement is needed. Creating a safe place where people can express themselves is essential. An organization must demonstrate empathy throughout the leadership ranks to cultivate it.
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