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Fresh News: The body language of empathy
The body language of empathy
Supreme Court Justice David Souter was retiring and President Obama was looking for a nominee who had, among other qualifications, "empathy for ordinary Americans." I assume that the president has his own definition of empathy, but when I hear the word, I think of mirror neurons and body language. And macaque monkeys.
Here's why . . .
In a research laboratory in Italy, scientists were studying the brain cells of macaque monkeys. Researchers had confirmed that when a monkey performs a single highly specific hand action, neurons in the motor cortex are very active. For example, every time a monkey reached for a peanut certain cells on either side of its brain "fired," creating a buzzing sound that was detectable by highly sophisticated monitoring equipment.
One day a monkey wired up for such an experiment happened to see a human grab a peanut. Much to the researchers' surprise, the same neurons fired in the same way. In terms of motor cell activity, the monkey's brain could not tell the difference between actually doing something and seeing it done. Because the cells reflected the actions that the monkey observed in others, the neuroscientists named them "mirror neurons."
Later experiments confirmed the existence of mirror neurons in humans. This system of neurons allows the brain to perform its highest tasks including learning and imitating. The brain's ability to see (or visualize) an action and mentally process that image as if the actual action was being performed is what makes "mental rehearsal" such a powerful way to prepare for an event, and why being "a good example" is the best teacher of all.
But the research revealed another surprise. For human beings, in addition to mirroring actions, the cells reflected sensations and feelings.
In my programs on "The Nonverbal Advantage," I use the term empathy to describe the human ability to internalize the emotional state of others by simply observing their body language.
The mirror neuron system gives us the ability to create an image of the internal state of another person's mind. Empathizing with someone, whether in grief or joy, can activate the very same circuits in your own brain as in your companion's. For example, one study had subjects watch a hand move forward to caress someone else and then saw another hand push it away rudely. The brains of the subjects registered the pain of social rejection as if it was happening to them.
Mirror neurons explain how we are hard-wired to connect with others. The moment you see an emotion expressed on someone's face - or read it in her gestures or posture - you subconsciously place yourself in the other person's "mental shoes," and begin to sense that same emotion within yourself. For this reason mirror neurons are sometimes referred to as Dalai Lama neurons, because they provide a biological basis for compassion.
In his book, On Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, "Real communication occurs when we listen with understanding - to see the idea and attitude from the other person's point of view, to sense how it feels to them, to achieve their frame of reference in regard to the thing they are talking about."
Reaching that goal of real communication -- of understanding, of empathy -- this is why nonverbal literacy is so crucial to our profession relationships.
Carol Kinsey Goman Ph.D. is a leadership communications coach and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She offers informative, interactive, entertaining and custom-tailored programs.
• Expert contributor for The Washington Post's "On Leadership" column.
• Leadership blogger on Forbes.com
• Author of "The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work (Bk Business)" and "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help--or Hurt--How You Lead."
To contact Carol about speaking or coaching, call +1 510 526 1727 or email CGoman@CKG.com. For more information or to view videos, visit Carol’s websites: www.SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com and www.CKG.com.
You can also follow Carol on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CGoman, on FORBES http://blogs.forbes.com/people/carolgoman/, or “Like” her Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carol-Kinsey-Goman-PhD/105398069543578
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Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing
Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing
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