Ever walked into a restaurant for a meal in an upbeat mood – and walked out feeling really angry because of the terrible service? Ever walked into a party feeling quite tired and a few moments after walking in feeling quite energized? Ever walked into a meeting feeling quite positive and in a short while felt like your energy had been sucked out by all the negative feeling and emotions of the others in the room>
I am sure we have all experienced such things – and even something simple like someone smiling genuinely at us and thereby brightening our day. Could even be a total stranger!
We transfer our emotions and energy to each other
I was recently listening to a podcast featuring Vanessa Van Edwards lead investigator at her human behavior research lab, the Science of People, where she was talking of a research that had been carried out at Stony Brook University effectively prove that our emotions are transferred to others quite seamlessly and mostly without us realizing it.
The research had been where ‘sweat pads’ had been fixed to first time sky divers who quite understandably had been terrified when jumping out of the plane and free falling for the first time and also sweat pads from people running on a tread mill. These sweat pads were then placed inside fMRI machines while research participants brains were being scanned. And what they found was that when the sweat pads were those of the sky divers – the fear centers of the brains of the research participants were activated effectively transferring the emotion of fear from the skydivers to them.
I thought this was really interesting and scary as well – for now there was definite proof that something we had suspected for some time was actually true. We affect each other without even knowing it.
Other research done by Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, shows that we have a special group of neurons called ‘mirror neurons’ that are activated both when we perform a certain action—such as smiling or reaching for a cup—and when we observe someone else performing that same action. So when someone is frowning our mirror neurons pick up on that and indicate to us that this other person is annoyed about something and therefore we should be careful about what we say or do, and also makes us less happy than we were. When this person is someone in authority like a manager or a leader we have even more reason to be on our guard as an inappropriate action could have serious consequences.
Another example is that when I see you smiling – my mirror neurons for smiling are also activated which in time gives me the emotion which is normally a result of smiling or which results in a smile, in other words I become ‘happy’. Yet another way of proving that our emotions are transferred to others.
The need for Survival
It is believed that the mirror neurons evolved as a method of survival which enabled us to pick up on the emotions of others and thereby help to be on our guard or mimic them. For example if the leader of the tribe was in a bad mood it would serve us well to pick up on this as otherwise an untoward remark or gesture could result in physical harm or danger. The same in the modern day jungle where picking up on the emotions of our boss, is essential in ensuring corporate survival.
Empathy and Autism
So we see that mirror neurons are essential for us to pick up on the emotions of others and also in order to have empathy. Another possible reason for the evolution of these neurons seems to be connected to the bond between mother and baby, where the mother instinctively picks up on the baby’s emotions and therefore is able to protect and nurture, thereby helping to ensure survival of the species.
Autistic people are known to have a deficit in mirror neurons, which would seem to explain their reduced ability to have empathy and pick up on the emotions of others, thereby making social interactions difficult.
How can we use this to have a happier life!
Well we could try to be consciously aware of our emotions and also be on our guard to avoid picking up negative emotions from others. When we become aware of our emotion – if it is a negative one like anger or annoyance or frustration – we could consciously focus on something happy or a reason to be grateful in our life and thereby turn the negative emotion off and the positive emotion on. Rather like toggling a light switch!
If you are a manager or leader – it is more likely that your emotions are getting transferred even faster to your team – as naturally the followers look up to the leader to try and ascertain his / her mood for their own well-being and survival. Think of a situation where the CEO in a really bad mood is furious for low sales in the past month and is now addressing the staff numbering hundreds of people. In this instance one person – negatively affects the emotions and energy levels of hundreds. More reason to be consciously aware of what emotions we are transferring.
After all it wouldn’t be desirable to be transferring negative emotions, and thereby exponentially reducing productivity, happiness, and as a result of this, profitability of our organizations.