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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

Tap Into Mirror Neurons: Built for Speed

You've got mirror neurons.* Do you know what they do?

artist rendering of mirror neurons

Mirror neurons on the magical brain cells that trigger us to imitate-- or mirror-- other's behaviors. They enable us to acquire new behaviors, understand the intentions of others, and develop empathy.

If your toddler ever sassed you with your own words, you've seen mirror neurons at work.

If you've ever found yourself using an expression a colleague says all the time, for sure, your mirror neurons were are at work.

If you've found yourself matching someone's volume and pacing of speech in a meeting, your mirror neurons were at work.

Highly empathetic people are thought to have more of these neurons still activated in adulthood.

Mirror Neurons & Social Learning

Mirror neurons also the magic ingredient behind social learning. They evolved so that we could learn at the speed of observation and imitation.

Imagine how slow it would be if we had to learn everything through explanation. Learning a language might be impossible.

Instead, mirror neurons allow you to see imitate others. Here's how you might see mirror neurons support work:

  • A junior employee shadows a senior employee and starts to pick up good habits, like asking clarifying questions at the start of a client engagement.

  • A salesperson mirror the body language of a potential client, which makes the client feel more at ease and more likely to purchase from the salesperson.

  • A new hire watches a veteran employee get up and walk to the break room at 12 pm and not return until 1 pm, signalling that it's ok to enjoy a full hour for lunch.

Mirror Neurons & Social Media

But you might think that mirror neurons are only triggered in face to face interactions (hello, ROI and f2f training advocates, I see you).

That's not the case.

For example, social media platforms provide a vast array of visual and auditory stimuli that can trigger the mirror neuron system, facilitating social learning and emotional responses in a digital environment.

This means, leveraging scalable social learning within our organiztions empowers us to tap into faster, more agile forms of learning that support culture and empathy building.

Here a few examples:

  • During a meeting, a manager asks for help brainstorming solutions to a problem by putting virtual sticky notes on a virtual whiteboard. At first, no one does it. Then, someone shares, and all of a sudden the rest of the group starts sharing ideas too.

  • A cashier starts a SMS group chat called "Caturday" on a Saturday with cat GIFs. It's intended as a pick-me-up for the weekend shift workers. Several others send a cat .gif in repsonse. Then, every Saturday becomes a Caturday, and leadership notices a boost in morale among weekend shift workers.

  • An accountant shows a new hire their process for navigating the accounts receivable during a screen share. The next time the accountant works, they apply this process.

Imitation at Scale Requires Intention

All of this fast-learning sounds great! Yes, mirror neurons are amazing.

But mirror neurons don't decipher desirable vs. undesirable behavior.

So we have to be strategic in how we arrange experiences, what behaviors we make visible and replicable, and how we help people assess behaviors.

If you really want something to catch on, you have to make it easy to imitate.

And if you don't, then make sure you aren't positioning it to become imitable.

Toxic cultures are just as easy to mimic as healthy ones-- sometimes easier.

Now You See It

What's the most recent example of mirror neurons at work that you've noticed?

Resources for Further Learning

Here are some great resources to learn more about mirror neurons and social learning:

Hyeonjin Jeon1 and Seung-Hwan

📄 What Happened to Mirror Neurons? by Cecilia Heyes and Caroline Catmur

📄 Contagious depression: Automatic mimicry and the mirror neuron system - A review by Lisiê Valéria Paz, Thiago Wendt Viola, Bruna Bueno Milanesi, Juliana Henz Sulzbach, Régis Gemerasca Mestriner, Andrea Wieck, and Léder Leal Xavier

*Note that not everyone in the scientific community believes mirror neurons exist. But the function of imitability is still important. Here is an alternative perspective:

🎙️ What are mirror neurons? by Huberman Labs

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