Ever heard of “mirror neurons”? These little gremlins have been discovered by neuroscientists over the past decade and are proof that our brains are wired to relate to other people. Through every interaction with someone else, a neural bridge is formed that fires in and out of sync with the people around us.
In Marci Shimoff’s book “Happy For No Reason”, she explains that whenever we observe someone else performing an action, these neurons “mirror” that action inside our brains as though we were performing it ourselves.
Take, for example, what happens when we see someone else yawn. Often we yawn, too, even though we aren’t tired. Or perhaps you’re like me and find yourself mimicking someone’s body language or speech rhythm. I do this to the point of embarrassment sometimes. Even more significant is the fact that these neurons have been linked to our ability to empathize with the emotions of others, and this is where things get sticky.
There is, of course, a positive side, when the laughter of another is infectious or the smile of a baby lights up a room or even the joy someone is experiencing warms our souls. …But what about the negative aspect of this?
There was a point in my life when circumstances dictated that I spend time with someone who was constantly beating the drum of negativity. I would get to work each day and wonder why I was drained of all energy and motivation, and didn’t really understand why it took hours to get back to my usual happy self.
According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, emotions spread from person to person, much like a cold, and I was “catching” those emotions.
So what can we do when we can’t avoid situations where the environment is negative? You might work in an office environment where gossip and a victim mentality rule the workplace, or perhaps your spouse works in that environment and then brings it home. How can we protect ourselves and not allow those cheeky “mirror neurons” to do their work?
The obvious would be to just avoid situations and people who bring us down, but that’s not always possible. I think that the best way is to “tune them out”. First, build up positive interactions or “immunity” in the office or at home before being bombarded by negativity.
Then, once we’re aware of how we can be affected by others, make a conscious decision not to mimic them…easier said than done, but extremely rewarding.
The icing on the cake, of course, is to remain so positive so that our negative companions begin to mimic us! This does not always work, but when it does, we find our little mirror neurons have changed the whole atmosphere at work or in the home or wherever we may be. At the very least we will have succeeded in not allowing another’s negative neurons to bring us down.