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Mirror Neurons and Why Anger is so Freakishly Contagious

picture of anger and mirror neurons

When you observe others and yourself you can’t help but to notice an interesting phenomenon – emotions are contagious.  It seems one can perk up and turn angry by merely watching another person get all hot and bothered.  You may think sometimes, “It’s almost unfair, this other dude is so ticked off but I can virtually taste his anger in my mouth as well…” Why is this  Can anger, be subliminally contagious?

Visually Transmitted Disease (VTD)?

If you have a few anger management challenges of your own then you might have watched your spouse slowly turn into a fire spitting dragon as years went by. “Damn, she wasn’t like this when I met her.. She’s turned into…me?”  It can also be the other way around where your zen like demeanor is suddenly being slowly “transformed” into an apparent bipolar disorder.  You catch yourself adapting an unusually resentful attitude towards life that was previously foreign to you yet it curiously resembles that of your partner’s. So what’s going on here…?  How can we feel each other’s pain by simply observing it and how can we unconsciously acquire each other’s qualities?

Mirror Mirror in the Brain, Why You Make me so Insane?

Meet the most recent and most exciting discovery of recent neuro-science – mirror neurons.  Our “monkey see, monkey do” behavior has finally been traced down to and attributed to a fascinating phenomenon taking place in our heads.  The brain apparently has quite a talent of being able to mirror and synchronize it’s internal states with an external environment.  Kind like a chameleon, your brain’s mirror neurons can fire off signals making you feel exactly the same way as the person you are observing.  Curiously, this type of neuron fires both when you are performing a cerain action, and also when watching someone else perform exactly that same action.  Basically, same neurons light up in the person you are observing and in your brain.  As a consequence, other’s persons’s feelings are mirrored in your own brain, whether you want that or not!

This process overrides any thinking, it just happens. Rizzolatti, one of the neuroscientists who uncovered this mystery, says “Mirror neurons permit us to grasp the minds of others not through reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.”  This is the social function of our brain that is responsible for making you cringe when others slip and fall, making your mouth water when you watch someone eating a lemon, and feel the spikes running up your back by observing some couple screaming at each other.

Mirror neurons serve a critical function – they make us social beings who can relate to each other and adopt to new environments.  It appears that these neurons makes us not only susceptible to moods of other people but are constantly impacting mind states of other creatures as well.  Watch the video below and you’ll see that animals too have mirror neurons and can feel our pain. :-)

Who Mirrors Who and Why?

Some scientists who study mirror neurons say that emotions are transmitted from the most influential people such as leaders, teachers, parents, entertainment stars to others who hold less power and opinion.  My own experience however shows that it is the people that we identify and hang out with the most also have a great deal of influence over our mirror neurons and overall mental makeup.

“If we think about emotion this way — as outside-in, not inside out — it is possible to understand how some people can have an enormous amount of influence over others. Some of us, after all, are very good at expressiing emotions and feelings, which means that we are far more emotionally contagious than the rest of us.” – Malcom Gladwell

This is evidenced even by our heavy influence of Hollywood (or even Bollywood) and pop culture. Here you see kids that identify with rappers like Snoop Dog suddenly starting to act more vulgar and wear baggy jeans in order to identify with his sentiments, or little girls all dolled up as Barbies with extra dark lip stick and mini skirt after watching too much Britney Spears on MTV. Problem with all this is that kids unconsciously seek to acquire someone else’s personality (because it’s “cool”) and consequently suffer from extreme anxiety of losing basic values and one’s true identity.  But I digress….

Neurons That Fire Together – Wire Together

anger management and brain neurons picture

New connections are made or trimmed every second

Another wonderful discovery of neuro-science is the plasticity of our brains.  The research clearly shows that our brains are not set in stone for our entire lives.  New neural connections are formed every day and the old and unused ones fall apart eventually and make room for new connections to form.  The key discovery was that if certain neurons fire together for an extended period of time (by observing a certain behavior or experiencing an emotional state) that they will eventually grow together and form a part of one’s personality.  Why is this important? Basically, if you expose yourself to enough anger and melodrama your brain will remember this and wire itself in a way that this state will be activated in you even by the smallest triggers. “You become that what you think, say and do.”

Ancient Wisdom Traditions Have Realized This Long Time Ago

In ancient wisdom traditions it is said that the fastest way to pass the realization from a master to a student is through identifying with the master’s enlightened qualities. Not through reading books, not through simple meditation, but by observing your teacher who has the wisdom that you seek.  We now know why this truly works – by allowing your mirror neurons to do their job, you can overcome mental obstacles such as analysis/paralysis and your own stiff ideas about how things should work based on your own limited experience of the world.

Funny it works the other way around too.  A big light went on in my head when I heard my spiritual teacher say: “If you hate people for a long time you will acquire more and more of their qualities simply because you think about them all the time.” Again, now you too can truly understand how this works – if you visualize every single intricacy about the essence of the person you truly hate, you are firing off your mirror neurons till they actually start wiring together by forming new synapses. The way two mad lovers acquire each other’s traits, the same way two hating people will acquire each other’s qualities.

Mirror Neurons and Anger Management

Mirror neurons are one of the culprits behind why you may find anger to be such a terribly hard beast to control. You may feel that your anger “just happens,” like a knee jerk reaction.  Don’t worry though, you can change all this and I’ll show you how in the near future.

The thing to remember for now is this: the closest people that truly love you will always consciously or unconsciously identify with your qualities. If you find yourself angry a lot among family you can bet you are transmitting this energy to them via their mirror neurons that may eventually grow together and form a part of their identity.  You will be angry, they will be angry, and this anger management issue will be transmitted to others (remember VTD); it will become an awfully viscous circle and will take a tremendous amount of effort to break out of.

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves. – Gautama Buddha

My advice? Be mindful what you expose your mirror neurons to and whose mirror neurons are exposed to your behavior. Review with IRS scrutiny which people have the most influence in your life. Who are your idols? Are they angry, bitter and arrogant types? Are they kind, patient and resilient types? All of these people shape your identity by simply being around you or in your awareness field. The answer to whether your mirror neurons are you best friends or worst enemies depends on what people you surround yourself and identify with. It may be a good time to do a bit of “social restructuring.”
P.S. If you want to lean more, read another post about brain’s relation to anger.  Feel free to leave a comment or an insight and let’s continue the conversation.
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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • usha September 14, 2013, 2:13 pm

    I am a researcher in the field of mirror neurons… A lot of what is said is almost true but I have to say this – no individual mirror neurons are found in the human brain so far… Mirror-like circuit is present which is being extensively studied. The non-existent “mirror neurons” in the human brain may be involved in a lot of functions such as imitation/action understanding etc… but they are far from being helpful on any level to anger management or empathy. The human brain is a complex and complicated affair – reducing the vast complexities to a single mirror neuron explanation is fallacious at best and very detrimental to research at worst. Mirror neurons (which have not been found in the human brain, I say again) being called the cradle of human civilization by scientists who should know better is projecting wrong science. There are simple explanations but no simplistic ones… I can understand the temptation to find a theory of everything for the human brain but this is simply misleading portrayal of research on the mirror neuron system (which is more appropriately called the action observation network in humans.)

    • AM Tadas September 16, 2013, 11:04 am

      Usha, thank you very much for a helpful comment. I am too noticing that neuroscience is such an evolving “sport” that mane times scientists will discover something and then later on discover something that contradicts the previous discoveries. I too agree “reducing the vast complexities to a single mirror neuron explanation” on why anger can be contagious is incomplete but as a student of Buddhist psychology I adhere to an idea that the mind and brain work together but are separate things. The mind does have this quality of tendency to identify, it is also quite obvious from a daily life. Whether its done via mirror neurons or the mentioned action observation network, I feel it is irrelevant in every day life. If science will later have a better explanation I will welcome it with open arms as the mechanical part is quite interesting :-) Best wishes.

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