Mirror neurons–helping you connect with others

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Have you ever found that you feel perfectly bright, awake, and rested, until you sit in a room with a bunch of tired looking people who are yawning? Before you know it, you find yourself yawning too. Even our dogs have been shown to yawn when they see us yawning. Watching someone else–human or animal–do something causes nerves in your brain to fire. These nerves are called mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are nerves that become active when you perform an action or watch someone else doing something. This is part of the reason you can begin to learn a new skill by simply watching someone else do it. Mirror neurons are also thought to produce empathy–your ability to share someone else’s emotions. For example, there are nerves in the brain that specifically turn on when you smell something disgusting.  So let’s say you’re out on a dog walk, you pick up Fido’s poo, get a big whiff, and yuck–those nerves are firing bad smell messages. On the other hand, if you see your neighbor across the street pick up some poo and see her scowling face after she gets an unpleasant odor, those same nerves in your brain become active–even though you can’t smell anything unpleasant. Your brain is mirroring the experience you’re watching.

You’ve probably heard that you should “share a smile with others.” Being friendly and smiling for others to see truly is a gift of sharing, since witnessing you smiling will make their smiling centers activated. On the other hand, if you’re feeling happy and you enter a room of scowling people, your joy will likely be diminished because unhappy centers in the brain will fire in a mirror response. Activation of mirror neurons may also help explain why watching our pets smile, frolic, and play makes us feel better. Our brains may be picking up on the positive energy that we see. Then positive centers in our brain may become activated so we feel the same pleasure and happiness we’re witnessing in our pets.

So the next time the sales clerk gives you a big smile and says, “Have a nice day,” notice that you’ll probably smile in return. Thanks–at least in part–to the work of mirror neurons.

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