Watch a pre-verbal baby, snuggling in his mother’s arms, and notice the unwavering intensity of their shared gaze. As the mother’s smile increases, the baby breaks the rhythm, pauses briefly, and something magic happens…mirror neurons fire up and he cracks his first smile. Without any conscious thought, you find yourself smiling too!
This is an example of an exquisite exchange of love – as well as a highly primitive cognitive phenomenon known as mirror neurons and unconscious ‘modelling’.
How is it we accept this deeply neurological connection between humans to understand how babies learn to ‘walk and talk’, form values between right and wrong, and acquire cultural and generational influences — yet we are slow to acknowledge this same ‘transfer of neural data’ is ubiquitous between mature adults – whether in the home, the social scene or the corporate office?
The answer to this question is waiting in the shadows – about to be revealed.
Propelled by vast advancements in lab and brain imaging technologies, the field of study known as neuroscience has exploded in the past decade. An audacious discovery of how humans are unconsciously connected via what is now known as the brain’s ‘mirror neurons’ was substantiated in findings published by Rizzolatti (1996) .
Studies done in the early 1990’s first using monkeys and more recently human beings, showed how certain neurons in several parts of the brain are discharged both when a monkey (or human) performs a certain motor act (e.g., grasping an object) and when it (monkey or human) observes another individual performing that or another similar motor act.
At the forefront in the study of human potential is the field of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). In the early 1970’s, more than twenty years before mirror neurons were known to exist, NLP co-creators Richard Bandler and John Grinder explicated patterns of human functioning through a process of unconscious (mirror neuron) uptake of the excellent performance of several people that were considered to be genius’ in their field of endeavour. While they didn’t have scientific evidence for what they were doing back then, they created a process, now referred to as ‘Real NLP Modeling’ that can be understood explicitly based on Rizzolati’s neurological findings.
The earliest models in NLP, originally applied as approaches within the field of therapy, were designed for establishing and maintaining deep rapport between individuals and to calibrate unconscious physiological responses. For it is through the establishment of an ‘unconscious connection’ – outside the awareness of the individual – that deep rapport exists, much similar to the rapport between mother and child.
So knowing this, what happens when the behaviours and actions of leaders are being modelled by the people closest to them via the unconscious activation of mirror neurons? How easy is it to mimic the behaviours of other humans? Observe a busy social bar scene and you’ll find ample evidence.
Most people can cite examples where they were affected by another person’s ‘mood’ or ‘state’. In environments where people are operating in close proximity (and have established rapport) the transfer of one person’s ‘energy’ can happen in a flash. What if the boss’s day isn’t going as planned? Unless the boss has developed the skills to quickly shift their internal state, unconsciously they will be sending out mirror neuron generating ‘vibes’ that can quickly impact the performance of the entire team. And like a row of dominoes, once an unresourceful state is activated it can be a challenge to ‘shake it off’.
So, if our brains are hard wired to map behaviours of another person without us even knowing – how can we stop it? And how self aware are we of the type of vibes we’re sending out to others?
In our rapidly advancing society, a lack of self awareness is no longer an accepted excuse for not changing one’s behaviour. Employers are beginning to understand the impact of the lack of self awareness, and the ability to monitor one’s own performance is readily becoming a highly sought after skill.
Advances have been made in the field of study called New Code of NLP for increasing self awareness, detecting deeply rooted behavioural patterns, and clarifying intention – all highly effective methods for adapting new behaviours. This is encouraging news for anyone seeking tools to monitor their own performance, for autonomous self coaching and continuous self improvement.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
As leaders we can learn to develop unconscious rapport, get clear about our intentions, and by ‘modeling’ the performance we want from others, ‘be the change we want to see’.
Excellent people nearby, whether they are paying attention – or not – will mimic the desired performance under the radar, via your mirror neuron connection.
© Jacquie Nagy, Holistic Directions Inc, 2011