We are born with a social brain, interacting with other people from cradle to grave, so any environment that hopes to help psychologically injured people must take seriously a Commitment to Emotional Intelligence.
Mirror Neurons & Empathy
The social nature of our brains is hard-wired, on-line at the time of birth. Newborns begin imitating facial gestures when they are only 41 months old so early imitation is not about learning – it is innate. Some researchers believe that it is this ability to imitate that is the moving force differentiating humans from all other species  and this is the basis for why we call attachment the Human Operating System. Findings like these put researchers on the path of searching for the involved brain areas which were accidentally discovered by laboratory researchers studying monkey behavior. As Daniel Goleman tells the story, the monkeys were hooked up to machines reading their brain waves and when a research assistant came back from lunch eating an ice cream cone, the monkey saw the cone and a part of his brain lit up in response to watching the lab assistant eating the ice cream (p.41). And so great discoveries are made!
The brain areas for the mirror neuron system were first localized in primates. But in the last ten years Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has been available to study the human brain and the result of that advance in technology is a revolutionary advance in understanding the social brain. Researchers around the world are currently developing maps for how the human brain responds to other people in a wide variety of ways. Because of fMRI research it is possible to see the brain in action, to look at not just the structure of the brain, but the brain-in-action.
Dr. Marco Iacoboni is a neuroscientist at UCLA and he recently published a book for non-neuroscientists about his area of research, the part of the human brain that also lights up while watching someone eating an ice cream cone - the mirror neuron system. Here we will just summarize a few of the key ideas that he and his colleagues around the world have been discovering . Like our monkey friends, mirror neurons in our brains are activated when we watch other people in action. If we see someone grasp an object, the motor area of our brain that would perform the same action, is also activated, even if we don’t move. We are all probably a bit aware of this when we watch a sports event or some very demanding physical activity that someone else is performing. You may find your own muscles activated when the batter swings or the pitcher throws, particularly if you have ever played baseball.
But human beings have mirror neurons all over our brains because we don't just mirror motor actions. We mirror emotional expression, tone of voice, gestures, mental images when we talk to someone, facial expressions and in doing so we come to know what someone else's intentions are and what another person is feeling. As Dr. Iacoboni writes, "When we see someone else suffering or in pain, mirror neurons help us to read her or his facial expression and actually make us feel the suffering of the pain of the other person. These moments are the foundation of empathy and possibly of morality, a morality that is deeply rooted in our biology, (p.5).
Another component of the social brain, the spindle neurons – also called Von Economo neurons – are situated directly behind our eyes and connect to our emotional centers. These cells, so vital to social development, grow connections after birth and allow us to keep track of our interpersonal interactions and guide snap decisions. There are indications that these neurons are impacted by abuse and neglect. Currently, another area of research is investigating whether the mirror neuron system and the Von Economo neuronal system may be involved in the autistic spectrum disorders in which children have serious problems with their ability to engage with other people.
Attachment and Resonance
Managing our emotions – modulating and containing them - is dependent on the interaction we have with others "from cradle to grave", in the words of John Bowlby, the great attachment theorist. Other people play a vital role in “training” the central nervous system how to respond and our relationships with other people has a great deal to do with the way in which our brain actually develops . Because we are a social species, dependent for our survival on other people from the time we are born, evolution designed us to resonate with the emotions of other. Such resonance has high survival value. It is life-saving for a mother to have a special and specific reaction to the cry of her child and it is very useful for the entire tribe when one individual scout, spotting danger is able to convey an immediate sense of that danger to his fellows by expressing his emotions through voice and gesture.
This resonance is conveyed in a number of ways. Every emotion evokes a different pattern of response in the nervous system affecting not just our internal organs but our facial and bodily expression as well. Every emotion also triggers a tendency to act in a certain way  and each emotion triggers a response in other people as well, called “emotional contagion”. Emotional contagion is defined as “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person, and consequently, to converge emotionally” (p.5) . We are profoundly influenced by other people’s emotional states, from the time we are born. We respond to another person’s emotional state within one twentieth of a second and in that time, our physiology is changed and our bodies become synchronized to the emotional state of the other. This happens outside of our conscious awareness and is beyond our ability to control. As Daniel Goleman discussed in his book, Social Intelligence,
"When two people interact face-to-face, contagion spreads via multiple neural circuits operating in parallel within each person’s brain. These systems for emotional contagion control the entire range of feeling, from sadness and anxiety to joy. Moments of contagion represent a remarkable neural event: the formation between two brains of a functional link, a feedback loop that crosses the skin-and-skull barrier between bodies. In systems terms, during this linkup brains "couple", with the output of one becoming input to drive the workings of the other, for the time being forming what amounts to an interbrain circuit. When two entities are connected in a feedback loop, as the first changes, so does the second" (p.39-40) .
Emotional contagion is so powerful and so much an implicit part of our voice, muscular effort, posture, and facial expression, that we can begin to alter our identity, and therefore our sense of reality, in fundamental ways without even knowing we are doing so. This ability to change ourselves under the influence of others has been recognized since ancient times. Plutarch said, "If you live with a cripple, you will learn to limp" and Euripedes wrote, “Where there are two, one cannot be wretched, and one not". Centuries later in The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allen Poe wrote, "When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is anyone, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or hearts, as if to match or correspond with the expression.” And Stephen King, in his novel, Rose Madder (1995), has an enraged battering husband who is tracking his wife; take on her identity as a strategy for finding her, "Never mind, he told himself. Never mind, just do your job. And right now your job is to walk like Rosie, talk like Rosie, think like Rosie" (p.110).
What is Emotional Intelligence?
The complexity and importance of these emotional reactions in the workplace require us to review the issue of emotional intelligence and what it takes to create an emotionally intelligent workplace. Emotional intelligence has become a hot topic in the last decade which is a significant shift. When we were both in professional training, emotions were rarely discussed outside of the realm of supervision, transference and countertransference – or when a patient’s emotions were wildly out of control. Emotions were certainly not a serious academic subject, treated with respect. Emotions were a part of the feminine realm and not thought to be worthy of serious study. Emotional Intelligence or "EI" has been defined by a number of people now, but we prefer defining it as “The ability to perceive accurately, appraise, and express emotions; to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotions and emotional knowledge; and the ability to regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth” (p.10). As this definition suggests, emotions play a significant role in our ability to think and evaluate as well as determining the nature of our relationships with others.
To be emotionally intelligent requires the acquisition of multiple skills that we learn by seeing and doing as we are growing up, so our degree of emotional intelligence is at least in part determined by our early childhood environments. EI requires the ability to identify a wide variety of emotional states and their accompanying physical manifestations and the thoughts that go along with them. And we must be able to express our feelings in words. We must be able to recognize, monitor and identify emotions in other people and depending on our exposure, to also perceive emotional expression in design, artwork, music and other sounds.
Social relationships make it necessary for us to know what emotions mean regarding relationships with others. Our complex society demands that we understand complex feelings in ourselves and in others – mixtures of feelings and tonalities. To get along with others we must be able to express our emotions accurately and let other people know what we need that is related to what we are feeling. To be interpersonally safe, we must be able to discriminate between honest and dishonest expression of feelings, to know what is really being felt and what is only being acted. We must be able to do all of this AND be able to detach from emotions when it is in our best interest – or the best interest of someone else – to do so. If we are mature adults, we are able to regulate – to manage – our emotional states, even when they are intense. And when we experience events that are overwhelming, we have people we can turn to who will help us until we can effectively manage our intense feelings.
Loss of Emotional Management
- Blackmore, S., The Meme Machine. 1999, London: Oxford University Press.
- Goleman, D., Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. 2006, New York: Bantam Books.
- Iacoboni, M., Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others. 2008, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Schore, A.N., Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. 1994, Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Nathanson, D.L., Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex,and the Birth of the Self. 1992, New York: W.W. Norton.
- Hatfield, E., J.T. Cacioppa, and R.L. Rapson, Emotional Contagion. 1994, New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Mayer, J.D. and P. Salovey, What is emotional intelligence?, in Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence: Educational Implications, P. Salovey and D.J. Sluyter, Editors. 1997, Basic Books: New York. p. 3-31.