We all react to the moods and behaviours of others, but we are all more empathic that we realise. Most people think that empathy is something we actively choose to engage in, such as during a deep and meaningful conversation or when we are moved by another person’s story. In fact, fascinating studies show that our brains empathise even when we are passively observing others.
In 1996, a group of Italian scientists led by Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in Italy made a fascinating discovery that has influenced the fields of evolutionary biology, neuro-cognitive science, and child development research. They wired the brains of monkeys to see which cells (neurons) lit up when they were performing different activities. They observed, as expected, that specific neurons would fire in the monkeys’ brains when they grabbed certain objects. But they also discovered that the same neurons would fire in a monkey that was passively watching another monkey engaged in that same act (Yapko, 2009, p. 2). They called this phenomenon mirror neurons.
The group of Italian scientists then discovered that humans also have this neural response. Humans are soft-wired with mirror neurons so that if we are observing the emotions of another person: their anger, their frustration, their sense of rejection, or their joy, the same neurons will activate in us as if we are also having that experience. As psychologist Michael Yapko writes, “When we watch other people, parts of our brain actively register as though we are experiencing it ourselves. During moments of empathic connection, humans mirror each other’s emotions and their physiologies move on the same wavelength.” (2009, p. 4). The point is: if you are living with someone, working with someone, or connecting with someone in any way that stimulates an emotional response, you will inevitably mirror and absorb some of their emotional responses. This has huge repercussions on the way we interact with others- it means that we are deeply empathic creatures and we are profoundly affected by our social interactions.
Joy is contagious. We need to be discerning with the people and experiences that we absorb. This includes the music we listen to, the movies we watch, the websites we visit, the social media we follow and the books we read. We need to spend our time with people that we want to mirror: people we want to be like and people that we want to feel like. The Framingham Heart Study investigated the spread of happiness over 20 years found that those who are surrounded by happy people “are more likely to become happy in the future.” We also need to become someone that others would want to mirror. Humans are social animals and we identify ourselves through social connections. So bring consciousness to your empathy.
What is your experience with empathy? I’d love to hear your stories!