The brain system that puts us inside each other’s minds

We tend to believe that the judgmental thoughts we silently think in our head are inconsequential, since no one hears them. We also might think the same about the positive regard and good will we quietly extend to others. The fact is, both are of great consequence.

Our facial expressions, body language, emotional subtleties, and even our hidden intentions all register inside the other person’s brain, giving us away. We read each other’s brains all the time and we have the mirror neuron system to blame or thank for it. This system was discovered in 1996, when neuroscientists observed that the exact same brain region active in a monkey eating a peanut was also active in a monkey without a peanut who was simply watching the other eat. Since then, a mountain of research has been conducted on mirror neurons, which turns out to be highly developed in human beings. Dr. Marco Iacoboni of UCLA, a leading mirror neuron researcher, states: “Mirror neurons allow us to understand the mental states of other people and practically puts us in each other’s mind.”

Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, body language, voice, and even the subtle meanings of one another. There are forty-three muscles in our face that produce facial expressions for the seven basic human emotions we experience — fear, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, contempt, and happiness. Each of these emotions and their physical expression are the same for everyone around the world.

For example, with fear eyebrows pull up and together, upper eyelids pull up, and our mouth stretches. Each fear-based facial movement prepares us for a fight-or-flight stress reaction. With happiness, the muscle around the eyes tighten, “crow’s feet” appear around the eyes, our cheeks raise, and our lip corners raised diagonally. The signs are subtle but once learned, we instantly discern the mood a facial expression conveys.

Mirror neurons are what makes our emotional state contagious and why, biologically, hostility bumps up your blood pressure and kindness lowers it. It’s why friends are healing, and enemies are toxic. When we see someone suffering or overjoyed, our mirror neurons make us feel the suffering or the joy.

So, how does this relate to leadership. It is the way the brain’s mirror neuron system and your attitudinal stance work together to create meaningful, forward moving relationships. In generating positive interpersonal connection, research shows that there are three attitudes that comes into play.

  • First is your willingness to drop roles and facades to be authentically yourself. This mirrors in the people you lead as the freedom to be themselves, which leads to greater self-expression and self-direction.
  • Second is your unconditional positive regard for your employees, which mirrors in them as the self-worth and belonging that builds trust and self-confidence.
  • Third is your empathy for your employees, which mirrors as the self-awareness and self-acceptance that fosters positive personality change.

Relate to employees in this way and there will be nothing coming from you that they need to defend against. These three attitudes work the same way with families and friends. With the right practice, you can cultivate this attitudinal stance and rewire your brain to embody it. I present an approach you can put to use in Chapter 12 of my book The End of Stress, Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain.