A friend of mine who is a therapist has an office next to his home. One day, a client came in, sat down and silently rocked his body for at least five minutes. He was so agitated he couldn’t speak. Finally, the therapist’s dog, who had never been allowed in the office, pushed the door open, slowly walked to the man, and laid his head on his leg. The man finally calmed down enough to talk about what had happened that day.
I have heard countless stories over time of pets knowing how to read emotional states and responding with just the right gesture to help us cope and heal. From the back yard, my last cat knew when I needed her to cuddle with me or cheer me up by playing.
Apparently, new research shows that we have this same capacity for “knowing.” When someone experiences an emotion, we have “mirror neurons” that are designed to understand the intentions and the social meaning of someone’s behavior and emotions. Since we are social creatures, our survival depends on this system. This is how children learn, cultures are passed on, and human bonds are strengthened or weakened over time.
However, we don’t just understand, we mirror the experience. When we see a spider crawling up someone’s leg, we feel a creepy sensation. In the same vein, when we observe someone reach out a hand and that hand is pushed away, our brain registers the sensation of rejection. When we watch our favorite team win or a handsome couple embrace on television, the thrill is more than vicarious. We can suppress the emotions, but we can’t stop them.
Social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, embarrassment, disgust and lust are actually learned devises based on this human mirror system according to Dr. Keysers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The question remains, are we acting out of our own past experiences, dredging up old pains and joys? Or are we really sensing what people are feeling and thinking.
Probably both. Researchers at the University of Arizona have found that the brain will react to an emotion of someone in the room without even seeing the person. However, direct observation triggers more analogous and sustainable responses.
In other words, when we watch someone else, in person or on television, we seem to be able to feel exactly what the other person is feeling and are pretty good at predicting what they will do next, whether we have had the same response in a similar situation or not.
What does this mean? Right now, the work is being done to help therapists improve empathy.
Certainly, any profession that deals with awareness and personal growth can benefit from learning how to “see and hear” what is going on in their mirror neurons.
Dr. Daniel Siegel at the Center for Human Development in Los Angeles sees many applications for parenting. With awareness training, not only can parents better understand the emotions and subsequent behaviors of their children in the moment, they can better talk to their children about the long-term impact of highly-charged events, such as the glorification of violence on tv and the distress of social events at school.
Professional athletes are learning how to determine what a person will do next—their intention—after reacting in a specific way. Many are now watching hours of their opponents on video along with their hours of practice.
How do you know what your brain is registering?
1. Be quiet, inside and out.
This is not a process of analysis. This is a system of emotional responses. The more you can quiet your thinking/chattering brain, the more you can hear your emotional wisdom.
2. Sit back and watch as well as listen.
The more you let your brain observe a person, the better the brain can pick up emotional cues.
3. Ask yourself what you are feeling.
Start by trusting that your emotions are in part a reflection of what the other person is feeling, whether they know what they are feeling or not.
This may require that you teach your brain to access and label your emotional reactions, a skill most of us have not been taught. To help learn this skill, check out my Emotional Inventory.
You may also need to work on identifying where in your body your emotions appear. Where do you feel fear—in your chest, your throat, or in the back of your neck? Where do you feel anger—in your stomach, your jaw, or in your clenched fists? How about betrayal? Joy? Anticipation of something good? Anticipation but not knowing the outcome? Humiliation?
Recall the last time you felt a particular emotion. Try to feel it again. Where does it show up in your body? The quicker you can identify changes in your physical reactions to situations, the easier it will be to know that you are “having an emotion.
4. Test your instinct.
If you can, tell the person what you are feeling. Ask them if there is anything that might be triggering these same emotions in them. Be patient with their response. It might take them a while before they can recognize their own emotional state. Then share with them what you think they might do next. Even if you are wrong, it will help them to begin to identify their own emotions and inclinations for action.
In truth, we are all mind readers. We just need to trust and to have the patience to believe what we read.