It’s 9PM, you’re sitting on your couch, watching a romantic comedy while secretly digging through a bowl of popcorn. The plot thickens, the two characters are separated, but, through their power of their will, a gentle struck of luck and the almighty benevolence of the screenwriter, they’re finally reunited.
Oh joy, oh joy.
Without even realizing, a tear is formed and your eyes are suddenly blurred. You smile gently and make room for the tear, since no one can see you, and take another handful of popcorn.
Congratulations, you just witnessed one of the many ways we’re influenced by “mirror neurons”.
What Are Mirror Neurons?
According to this TED talk, by Vilayanur Ramchandran, “only recently discovered [mirror neurons] allows us to learn complex social behaviors, some of which formed the foundations the foundation of human civilization as we know it”.
Mirror neurons are basically the neurons which are allowing us to imitate and emulate behaviors. Being it a specific action, like hitting a nail with a hammer, of more complex patterns, like learning a new foreign language.
We learn, most of the time, by imitation.
But there are many other contexts in which we are influenced by these neurons.
Let me give you a very short example.
As many of you know, I love to run. I ran quite a few marathons and ultramarathons, and each of them had an interesting and beautiful story.
But each of them had also its share of “mirror neurons” behaviors that I had to struggle with.
One of the these patterns is happening immediately after the start. At many marathons, the pace right after the start is very high. Way higher than it should be.
Although all runners know it’s virtually impossible to sustain a 3.5 min / km pace for 42 km, they’re “going with the pack” and keep that pace for 3-4-5 kilometers and then they stop or slow significantly.
And it’s not because they want to do that. In training, each and every one of them had different scenarios. But because their mirror neurons are “aligning” with the pace of the other runners. They’re literally “going with the pack”.
If you’re not very conscious and self-aware, it’s very difficult to keep your own pace in the beginning of a public marathon, with dozens of thousands of runners.
The Good Part
As the researcher in the TED talk shows, there is a tremendous impact of these mirror neurons at the evolutionary scale. Instead of being generational, evolution becomes almost instant (both horizontally, in the members of the same group, or vertically, in the members of the same lineage). If someone discovers a new tool, by accident, these mirror neurons are making the adoption process very easy: people will just imitate what they see.
So, by mirroring great skills, imitating what others are doing “good” (you’ll see the meaning of the quotes in a bit) your chances of survival are increasing.
To take this even further, by imitating a certain spiritual practice (like Buddhism for instance) you get the same results as the masters who created that practice. Being it enlightenment or redemption.
Or at least you hope you’ll get it.
The Ugly Part
The bare fact about these neurons is that they are, just, you know, neurons.
They will urge you to imitate some behavior, and that’s it.
There is no built-in moral code which can do some supervision and say: “this is not ok to imitate, stop”, or “this is ok, go ahead”. The moral code happens at a different level.
Hence, the problem.
We get this urge of doing like the other people do, but we’re not always in sync with what we really want to do, or with who we really are.
Because, most of the time, mirror neurons are firing before we had the time to verify the validity of the action. Before we had the time to check if the action that we’re going to imitate is really validated by our moral (or general) code.
That’s how people can be part of social atrocities, that’s how they can be convinced to turn against each other. It’s not that they don’t know, deep down, that turning against another human being is bad, but this semi-automate system of imitation is already fired up. There’s noting else stopping it.
As a matter of fact, we don’t even know it’s the “mirror neuron which does that”, we just feel the compulsion to do exactly the same.
So, how can you solve this problem? How can you get the most of your “mirror neurons”?
1. Practice Mindfulness
The first and most important thing to do is mindfulness. And by mindfulness I don’t understand staring at a wall half a day, chanting mantras that you barely understand, but keeping a sense of presence each and every moment, in each and every situation of our life. Knowing that we’re in some place and what we are doing in that place. Checking on ourselves constantly.
Mindfulness will help us discriminate between our own, intended actions and the actions fired up by mirror neurons. It will create some space between our desire to react to something and the normal, validated reaction to that thing.
It’s easier than you think.
Just count to three. Or take 3 deep breathes. Or blink 5 times before you engage in something.
Seriously. Try this for a day and see how the world becomes a bit more easier to understand and manage.
2. Know Who You Are And Where You Go
On top of mindfulness, there should be a sense of direction, or intention, a sense of where you are and where you actually go, in each and every moment of your life.
Like I said in this article about the real cost of earning, there is an isolated scope of our actions (or an immediate, limited scope) and a general scope.
You can’t live only at the general scope. You can’t always look at a point 10 miles ahead of you and not fall down at some point, because you ignored a hole 2 meters away.
Each scope, the immediate and the general, have their own importance.
Let’s say that the immediate scope deals with survival, while the general scope deals with evolution. If you’re not surviving, you don’t have anyone left to evolve, so to speak, and if you’re only focused on evolving, you may forget basic, important survival skills.
So, creating this sense of knowing where you are, who you are and where you are heading, will help you deal with the compulsion created by mirror neurons.
Suppose you feel this urge: “I want to do this right now, because everybody else does it”. But before actually engaging in doing it, you can now stop and ask the following question: “Is this something that will jeopardize my survival? Is it really necessary? Is it something really urgent and life saving?”
If you’re on a boat and the boat is sinking, then you’re in a survival situation. Your mirror neurons are already registering the moves of those who are jumping over board and start to swim.
Given the context, following your mirror neurons right now, without too much thinking, will be a good thing. Actually, will be a very, very smart thing.
But suppose you’re on the same boat and suddenly people are starting to jump over board because one of them found this funny. Somehow.
Well, this is not a survival situation. But, believe it or not, the pressure of trying to do the same is considerable, though.
That’s where you apply this “know who you are and where you go”.
If you still want to make it safely to the port, you may not jump with all the other people, because this is not your plan.
3. Anchor In A Strong Port
And third, on top of mindfulness and intent, try to keep a set of strong convictions about reality, about yourself, about your values. In other words, create a system. And stick with that system.
We all have this system in a certain form. Some of the values we inherited from our families, some we created by trial and error and some we just inferred by social pressure.
And for many of us, this system is working.
The problem arises when your mirror neurons are urging you to do something that goes against this system.
This is not a survival versus evolution situation.
This is a “what are my values and how far can I go against them” situation.
The line here is more blurred and the impact may be more subtle, but, nevertheless, there will be a major impact.
Let’s say you’re enjoying your lunch break at the office, with some of your colleagues. And you’re just chatting. And one things leads to another, and, before you know it, you’re gossiping. Like first class gossip, you know.
And everybody in the room seems to enjoy this.
What do you do, if your values system has a checkpoint that says: “do not gossip?” (Incidentally, my values system does have this checkpoint).
Well, you anchor in a strong port.
You remember why gossiping is not good (by recalling mindfulness and reaffirming your intent, like in the first 2 points) and then find something else to do.
Now, since you got to the end of this article, I have something else to share with you 🙂
Some of your mirror neurons fired when you read this article too. There are some parts in you that are already creating this imaginary virtual reality in which you want to implement some of the actions described.
My question is: what exactly do you want to imitate from this article?