Humans learn through watching others do things. Whether a baby learns to put a square block through a hole, or a student learns complicated steps to a dance routine, we are imitating and modeling the actions around us. It is a classic case of monkey see monkey do.
The part of our brain responsible for this ability are mirror neurons.
What Are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons are a relatively recent, and very under-researched, area of psychology. In fact, they were only discovered in Italy in the 1980s, by psychologist Rizzolatti and his colleagues.
The discovery was also accidental.
Rizzolatti was trying to see how motor neurons were activated by actions. What he and his team discovered opened up a whole new world of thought!
Basically, when a monkey reached for a peanut, one part of its brain is activated. This same part of their brain was activated when the researcher also reached for a peanut.
Talk about monkey see monkey do.
Apparently, it’s also monkey see monkey do monkey feel.
Mirror neurons play a huge role in our psyche. In fact, it is these monkey neurons that are responsible for empathy, learning, language, and countless other human traits!
How often do you tear up when you watch a sad scene in a movie? Do you cringe with second-hand embarrassment when your friend says something questionable? Did you learn to keep your house clean simply by watching your parents clean up dishes?
Each of these examples is at least partly (if not fully) possible because of mirror neurons. The implications go far beyond the world of psychology.
What Does Monkey See Monkey Do Have To Do With It?
Part of being human is empathy.
If we see an injury, on some level, many of us feel pain. When our loved ones are hurt, we also hurt.
Empathy is critical to human development. We are social creatures after all.
But how does a mirror neuron apply to you and your life? How can you use this impressive discovery to personally improve your own health?
Unfortunately, researchers have not looked directly into how mirror neurons could be used to help someone with depression or anxiety. There are some practical examples, however, of how this research could be applied.
In one case, the Clubhouse (a community psychosocial rehabilitation program) posits that when a person with a mental illness watches other people taking part in activities, the person feels as though they have agency. Basically, by watching others create and produce, mirror neurons fire, and help the person with a mental illness feel as though they can contribute too!
This example takes place within a treatment facility.
But, we can harness that logic in our own lives.
For starters, who are you surrounding yourself with? Are your coworkers content with their job and eager to contribute to the workplace? How does their energy impact your own?
Alternatively, have you ever been in a study group where most of your classmates moan about an upcoming deadline? Suddenly, every chance of studying is gone because you too are hopeless about the demands on your schedule?
Let’s Talk About Energy
These instances are often explained by “energy”. Basically, if someone else is pessimistic or cynical, you are more likely to be pessimistic and cynical. If you surround yourself with hopeful and energetic people, you can feed off their hope and energy.
Whether this effect is a result of a person’s aura or mirror neurons, the result is the same.
Who you surround yourself with will impact your mental health.
Likewise, the media you consume will impact your mental health.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but this is why we need to be mindful of the effects others have on our health. Why? Because we humans are not isolated systems. We are a part of a larger environment, and the other players in that environment influence us as much as we influence them.
But enough talk about energy and mindfulness.
You are reading this article because you are looking for concrete ways to harness psychology to improve your own mental health!
Monkey See Monkey Do – And Don’ts
Mirror neurons are seen as the basis of empathy. They allow us to feel the ways others are feeling. Therefore, if we want to feel better, we have to surround ourselves with the people we want to be like.
- Befriend people who are optimistic or make you laugh
- Nurture reciprocal relationships, where both parties equally contribute emotional labor
- Consume media that is light-hearted
- Set boundaries around negative sources of energy (media, people, places)
- Determine the values you have and what you need to feel good
- Set times to refresh yourself through self-care
- Give others unrestricted access to your energy
- Watch sad/angry/upsetting news stories on repeat
- Internalize the negative emotions of others (we can help others empathetically while setting boundaries around how much of their emotions we absorb)
- Neglect your own needs when helping another person
Mirror Neurons: Blessing or Curse?
If you are an especially empathetic person (like I consider myself to be) it can be especially difficult to function in a world where so many things seem to be going wrong.
Eco-anxiety, world conflicts, hunger, and a pandemic are all massive drains on our energy – and a lot of that is because we truly feel for the people in these situations. We are empathetic.
And, sometimes it sucks. Sometimes, this is why an otherwise perfectly healthy individual can become chronically depressed. We can internalize too many of the negative emotions around us, and that makes it hard to cope.
On the other hand, mirror neurons are a blessing.
Who can’t help laughing when a baby giggles? When an elephant saves a human, a lion smiles at a photographer, or a husky howls “I love you”, how can we not smile?
Mirror neurons, and empathy, are crucial to human nature. They are critical to how we engage with one another. Moreover, mirror neurons are imperative to social change (such as ending slavery).
So what exactly is the takeaway?
Humans, and other primates, have an innate ability to care about others. On one hand, we do need to protect ourselves from over-empathizing with people, especially when they are in situations that we cannot control. But, when we can help, that pain we feel for them is the signal we need to help.
There is an argument that humans only do good things for others because it makes them feel good. Some people believe that this means humans are inherently selfish. If an act of kindness didn’t make us feel good, would any of us ever do it?
I think doing good is central to our humanity. And, when we feel good after doing a good thing, it’s those mirror neurons firing.
Many of us, I think, have forgotten to pay attention to these signals for empathy. This is likely because we are inundated with negative media. We recognize what this does to our psyches, and we close ourselves off as a form of protection.
But, at the end of the day, we are humans. We rely on social relationships.
None of us would be here without the empathy of another human. And, the only way forward, is to bring that empathy to the forefront once again.