(Part Two: Monkey See, Monkey Do)
By Joe Cheal
This article is the second in a trilogy aiming to provide a little background on the neuro-science of rapport.
As an NLP Trainer, standing (or sitting) at the front of the room, you have a significant impact on the state and brain chemistry of the audience. Of course, the way you behave, the language you use and the stories you tell could have an obvious, conscious effect on the emotions of the audience, but it goes much deeper than that… every move you make has an impact…
When you carry out an action, for example kicking a ball, there are a set of motor-neurons that fire in the brain. In addition, when you see someone else kick a ball, you have another set of motor-neurons called ‘mirror-neurons’ that also fire. As far as the mirror-neurons are concerned, you are kicking the ball too. In fact, you can hear a ball being kicked and as long as you know what it is, those same mirror-neurons will fire. Even talking about kicking a ball or thinking about it or reading about it appears to set them off.
Marco Iacoboni (2008) suggests that mirror neurons create a map of the body and are triggered by ‘potential actions’ of the body as well as actual actions. There are different types of mirror neurons that fire for different reasons:
- when perceiving or grasping a particular object,
- when perceiving or carrying out a particular action,
- when perceiving or carrying out actions that achieve a similar goaland
- when perceiving or carrying out actions that lead to other actions.
So what does this concept of mirror neurons add to NLP?
Mirror Neurons and Rapport
The most obvious connection is with empathy and rapport. In order to get a sense of how someone else is feeling, your mirror neurons tell you. As long as you have experienced a particular emotion or action yourself, you can then empathise with that. If you have not experienced a particular emotion or action, no mirror neurons will fire. It is as if mirror neurons are programmed with particular types of experiences once you have had those experiences first hand. Afterwards, they will fire off if they see, hear or feel something similar. Indeed, the more practised you are at a particular action or emotion, the stronger the mirror neuron reaction when you perceive that action or emotion in others.
It is equally possible that mirror neurons have played a part in your ability to socialise and connect with others. They may be responsible for your ability to learn from others and indeed to model others successfully. Perhaps they even have a role in your morals and ethics. If you had no connection to others, you would feel no sense of the hurt or joy that you might instil in others by your behaviour.
Research about mirror neurons has also demonstrated that mirroring someone else’s body language (e.g. your right hand with their left hand) lights up the mirror neurons four times more strongly than basic matching/mimicking (your right hand with their right hand). Mirroring produces higher rapport than basic matching. Indeed, according to Marianne LaFrance (1982), when an observer sees two people mirroring, they regard them as having more closeness than when they simply match.
Peter Enticott at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and colleagues (2008) have discovered that people who are good at interpreting other people’s facial expressions tend to have more active mirror neurons. Whether some people are born with more mirror neurons or develop more because of life experience is unclear. It seems that mapping other people’s expressions and actions onto our own bodies, helps us to understand and predict that person’s intentions and emotions. This also tends to boost empathy levels. It is clear that mirror neurons must also play a key role in calibration and emotional intelligence.
- Enticotta, Peter G. et al (2008) “Mirror neuron activation is associated with facial emotion processing” Neuropsychologia (article in press)
- Iacoboni, M. (2008) “Mirroring People” FSG: New York
- LaFrance, M. (1982) “Posture Mirroring and Rapport” in M. Davis ed “Interaction Rhythms: Periodicity in Communicative Behaviour” Human Sciences Press: New York