Hard Wired to Connect

One of the aims of this blog is to share different voices and their experience of applying mindfulness, meditation and compassion in the workplace. This week I am very happy to introduce a blog from my friend and colleague Darran Trute. I hope you enjoy reading!

The training offered by Awareness in Action, provides the vision and ability to apply the techniques of mindfulness, meditation and compassion into our working life.  As well as feeling the immediate helpful benefits of such techniques myself, which is my own direct measure, I also find it useful to understand mechanisms of how such techniques actually benefit myself and others.    I thought I’d try and share some of  the research and insights, hopefully in an accessible way.

Our brain is made of billions of tiny switches (called neurons) which fire hundreds of times per second like spark plugs in a car engine, when we move, have emotions, think or reflect.

A recent discovery of a smaller group of these neurons is called mirror neurons. They are beautifully described by eminent scientist Dr Ramachandran as ‘Ghandi neurons’.   Like a network of virtual reality simulators they recreate the sounds, perceptions and movements of others onto our own internal body representation – your emotions become my emotions your movements become my movements.  Through them we spontaneously empathise, relate and can respond to needs of others. They naturally map other peoples actions, moods and feelings onto ourselves – this also provides an efficient mechanism for us to learn quickly from others, as we embody the actions of others in ourselves through watching.

We are, simply speaking, hard wired to connect.

Mirror neurons respond, perhaps surprisingly, based on the goal or perceived intention of the person performing the action – random actions by others don’t seem to cause them to fire. This means we unconsciously copy or imitate the emotional states of others with a sense of their intentions, this is what provides us with social cues as to how to respond.  We have a felt sense of where someone’s at and therefore can respond accordingly.

This unconscious or implicit imitation also occurs more strongly when we are with people we like or for people we perceive to be powerful.  A leader will capture our attention so their emotions will be particularly contagious.  However, its impact is also more subtle, for instance college student subjects who watched a video about old people were unaware that they walk more slowly to the exit at the end of a study.

This implicit or unconscious imitation has profound implications for team dynamics.  It is the basis for emotional contagions – how we inherit people’s moods in a team meeting or why a workplace has a particular mood tone.  It’s also why stress can become such an infectious corrosive atmosphere or how an empathic nurturing environment can spread, both with their subsequent impact on team dynamics.

As we develop self awareness and transform our responses through mindfulness, meditation and compassion, the process immediately benefits ourselves as it ‘turns on’ part of the nervous and brain systems that calm us and allows us to see situations and ourselves clearly.  Conversely studies show that destructive emotions, distort our perception.   Both types of perception, distorted or clear has obvious subsequent consequences in what decisions we make and how we create, relate and work within teams.

Any effort on our part to apply these techniques is also ‘seen’, by other peoples mirror neurons.  As mentioned, their nature is to automatically pick up on other peoples emotional states, whether it’s a state of balance and openness or in a more dysfunctional condition.   So by developing self awareness we immediately benefit ourselves and in the process help others.

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