Mirror Neurons and Social Contagion

On Saturday, I had the distinct pleasure of helping a group of aspiring hypnotherapists develop their (already pretty advanced) intuitions. Before we started, several members of the group told me they’d been looking forward to this session, and afterwards, I perhaps understood why: they were natural psychics, and needed a little help understanding, and, in at least one case, coping with, what they were already doing.

After my usual explanation of intuition, we began the practice exercises. One exercise is designed to increase the students’ awareness of others’ emotions at an energy/intuitive level. It requires that one member of a small group fully experience some emotion, by recalling an instance of it, as in method acting, so that the others can notice how that emotion manifests, and what it brings up for them. This is critical to healers, because sensing what is going on for your client and managing your own emotions around that is necessary to your client’s healing.

As I told the students that the next emotion they were to experience was anger, one woman standing quite close to me jumped the gun, and remembered her anger immediately. I caught a glint of it in her eye, and before I was aware of what had happened, part of me thought, “Oh, s**t, she’s mad at me!” And this happened even though I knew I had just asked the students to “run anger”.

At another point, I asked the group to run fear, which they gamely did. While I was not part of the exercise, just managing it, I found myself nauseated and desperate to leave the room, in the classic “freeze or flee” mechanism.

What was going on?

What was going on was that my neurology was working perfectly! Our brains apparently have certain neurons, called mirror neurons, which “reflect back an action we observe in someone else, making us have that emotion, or have the impulse to do so”, according to Daniel Goleman in his book, “Social Intelligence”. These mirror neurons are the mechanism of our understanding what someone else is experiencing. They create a sort of emotional contagion between people (and even among crowds), especially when they interact face to face, and particularly when they look each other in the eye. This happens completely outside our conscious awareness.

So when I caught the eye of the woman who was “angry”, I experienced her anger, and when several members of the group were “afraid”, I became afraid.

So if you are someone who “catches” others’ negative emotions quickly and easily, what do you do?

The first step to solving a problem is to recognize it. If you regularly have emotions that seem to come out of nowhere, for no reason, your mirror neurons are probably very sensitive (or you have more of them, or they’re working overtime, or something). So the first thing is to ask yourself, “is this my emotion?” If the answer is no, then find a neutral or positive thought which will bring you back to your own decoupled physiology. A few good neutral thoughts are:

I am balanced, centered and grounded. (And really feel your connection to the earth.)
I have a protective bubble around me (or my aura). (Again, take a moment to notice the protection.)
I’m me; you’re you; we’re different (or separate).

Not only will you feel better, but then, in a more resourceful state, you have the ability to shape the interaction, so that the other person “catches” your more positive state.

Hollis Polk is a personal coach (www.888-4-hollis.com), who has been helping people create lives they love for 15 years, using neurolinguistic & hypnotherapy techniques, decision science, clairvoyance & the common sense learned in 20+ years of business. She is an NLP Master Practitioner, hypnotherapist & has a BSE in engineering from Princeton & a Harvard MBA. She is also a successful real estate broker, investor & business owner.