Let me paint you a scene. You’re hanging out with a friend when he/she suddenly opens his/her mouth up to let out a jaw-cracking yawn. Almost immediately, you follow suit, with your own massive yawn.
Yawning is contagious, according to this article published in Brain Imaging and Behavior.
This is just one example of a contagious behavior. There are others. Have you ever lived in a foreign country and found that you took on the locals verbal tics?
For example, I’m presently living in Canada and have *gasp* become friends with Canadians. Some of these Canadians have the endearing habit of adding “eh?” to the ends of their sentences. It goes like this:
“Oh did you just see that beaver o’er there splash it’s tail in the middle of a Chinook. Quite the sight eh?” (Didn’t actually happen)
“Can you pass me the maple syrup for this moose sausage? They go so well together, eh?” (Actually happened)
Odd culinary combinations aside, I now find myself, quite unconsciously, tacking on “eh?” to the end of some of my sentences.
I didn’t choose the “eh?” – it chose me. I caught the behavior from my friends.
Behaviors are contagious. How and why that is is a fascinatingly complex story I don’t fully understand. But one thing is certain; behavioral contagion involves our mirror neuron system (MNS).
What Are Mirror Neurons?
The MNS is a network of visuo-motor neurons that was first discovered in a macaque by Italian researcher Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma in the 90s. Since then, it has been confirmed that human beings also have a MSN.
Mirror neurons are fascinating because they activate when we perform a particular action or when we observe another individual perform the same action.
Isn’t that mind-blowing?
When you run, you have a certain set of mirror neurons in your brain firing. Additionally, when you watch someone run, either live or on a screen, the mirror neurons which activated when you were actually running are also activating.
Mirror neurons can’t tell the difference between you and others.
When you observe someone doing something, mirror neurons within your brain are firing, simulating the other person’s experience. And you’re not even aware of it.
When I watch you behave, I become you. The human mind and body are a miraculous creation.
The MNS has been implicated in some of our most human characteristics; empathy, learning and language acquisition. Pretty neat eh?
Knowing how to use our mirror neurons empowers our learning ability allowing us to pick up new skills with less effort. I talk about how to do that next.
How Do You Use Mirror Neurons?
The good news is that as a bonafide human being you don’t need to learn how to use your mirror neurons. They are within you and are always firing when you are with other people. They most likely fire when you interact with animals of another species, like dogs!
What we can learn is how to maximize the “learning effect” of mirror neurons. Or, more accurately, we can unlearn the habits which we have built up which prevent us from faithfully relying on our mirror neurons to learn new skills.
The most important key to be able to rely on our mirror neurons to learn is to relax. Yes, that’s it. We learn the best when we’re relaxed. By relaxing we can allow our natural learning power to flow and we pick up skills more easily and have more fun in the process.
Relax To Engage Your Mirror Neurons
I know this firsthand because I grew up in a big city in Mexico with minimal opportunities to engage in physical exercise. As a teenager, I was constantly stressing out over my physical abilities. I was so anxious that when the time came to catch or throw a ball of any kind I would psyche myself out and muck everything up. As I attempted to make the throw/catch I would tell myself that I was going to fail. Unsurprisingly, what I told myself would happen, did happen.
Now that I’m an adult and I’ve become more relaxed, I’ve realized that I am able to pick up physical skills more easily than when I was a kid. For example, over the past couple of winter seasons I’ve been learning how to ice-skate. My girlfriend and I have been periodically going to a frozen pond to skate.
At first I was barely able to move. I would fearfully step out onto the ice and freak out as I lost control of my feet. But after a while of following my girlfriend, who can skate, I started tentatively inching one foot in front of the other and actually got to skating. Fast forward a season and I can now confidently ice-skate.
All I had to do was keep trying, following my girlfriend as she skated, allowing my mirror neurons to do their thing, and I learned how to skate.
Relax and Flow
The more I relaxed, the more the process flowed. Shutting off the ego allows our mirror neurons to do their thing and lead us in the learning process. Our egos judge, that’s what they do best. When we are learning a new skill we are going to be bad at it. There’s no way around it. We can tell our ego is running rampant when we feel like we’re learning slowly or we’re never going to improve. That’s the ego comparing your “performance” to the ego’s idea of what your “performance” should be. We always fall short of our ego’s expectations, so we are always left feeling inadequate when we allow the ego to compare.
Have you ever tried relaxing when the ego is on a comparison rampage? “You can’t do this”, “You’re unskilled”, “You’re a slow learner”, “Other people could learn this faster”. On and on and on it can go. A rampaging ego makes it impossible to relax.
Shutting off the ego allows us to relax which allows us to embark on the risks of learning new skills and have fun while doing so.
So how do we shut off the ego?
Shutting Off The Ego
Here I could write about how mediation allows us to train our attention so we give less of it to the ego and thus starve it of attention. The less attention the ego gets, the smaller it becomes. Meditation played a big role quieting the ego.
But ever since I became a Christian I’ve learned that meditation, at least for me, was not enough to quiet the ego. I still worried, especially over what was going on in the world. As governments expanded their power in the name of “public safety”, I remained caught in a permanent state of fear.
My ego was terrified of what was to come. It kept yelling, saying “Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong! Protect yourself and those you love!” – I lived like this for almost two years.
Then I did something I had never done before. I surrendered to Jesus Christ.
How Surrender Quiets The Ego
I’ve learned that surrendering to Jesus Christ in prayer and asking for His guidance and direction is a certain way of quieting the ego and being at peace with anything that comes.
When we humbly surrender to the direction of God in the name of His son, we bypass the ego. When we ask for God’s will to be done in our lives, the ego gets the message, steps aside, and allows Him to direct our lives. I can’t tell you the science of how this works, or even if there is science which has studied this phenomenon, but it’s real.
Surrendering to God means that we give Him control. Since God is always good, giving Him control means that whatever comes into our life will be for our good, according to His will. God has a plan for each of us and as long as we humbly ask Him for direction He will give it to us.
Surrendering means we give up comparing. We give up worrying. We give up stressing over what the results will be. We allow the Highest Intelligence, the Creator, to lead us. How can things go wrong?
Answer: they can’t.
This is discussed in the Bible, in Philippians 4:7:
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
By surrendering and quieting the ego, we step into the flow of life. We become relaxed when we’re with other people; we become who God wants us to be. We meet people who have important things to teach us, like how to serve others and how to humble ourselves.
By surrendering, you allow your mirror neurons to do their thing.
Care For Who You Hang Out With
It’s important to note that even before you’ve surrendered to Christ your mirror neurons are still working. They may be less effective, as the ego remains in the way, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t working.
It’s for this reason that you have to be very conscientious of who you spend time with before you’ve surrendered to Christ. Once you’ve surrendered, Christ will guide you true. I say this from experience. But before surrendering, you will be relying on your own limited understanding and so will have to use your own limited discernment on whom to include into your life.
You become the people you surround yourself with. If you surround yourself with people who are selfish, rude, boastful, dishonest or disloyal you are going to be picking up those characteristics yourself.
On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who are humble, serviceful, truthful, kind and gentle, you will step into those characteristics and embody them. Christ is the best example of who to emulate, so surrounding yourself with genuine followers of Christ will prove to be the most effective grindstone on which to sharpen these characteristics in service to God.
Be Careful What You Watch And Listen To
This might be self-explanatory for some, but I believe I need to write this to leave it totally clear. Not only do we become the people we hang out with, we also become what we watch and listen to.
I watch almost no mainstream television and movies. There is too much violence of all sorts and I know that by watching it I am becoming it. There is enough violence in the world without my willingly consuming it from a screen. Watching violence on television makes us more likely to be violent ourselves.
The same goes for mainstream music. Mainstream music is stuffed with materialistic, misogynistic, selfish and infantile sentiments which keep us locked in a perpetual state of childhood, focused on ourselves rather than on serving others. Listening to mainstream music is a sure way of becoming self-centered little beasts chained to our base desires.
Be on your guard. Be aware that everything you put into your mind through your senses remains there. The mind is like a bottomless barrel, everything we throw in stays in some shape or form.
Focus on things that are praiseworthy.
Jesus Is The Best Model
Speaking about things that are praiseworthy, Jesus is the most praiseworthy of all! You can find no one better to emulate than Jesus. Reading His word and meditating on how He lived is a sure way to activate your mirror neurons and become more like Him.
There is no going wrong when you focus on Jesus. He is always with you and is always ready to lend a hand, if you ask.
Final Thoughts: Go Out There And Mirror!
This article started off with discussing mirror neurons and ended up praising Jesus. There’s no better model of how to live than Him. Now that I’m a Christian, it’s impossible to write about self-improvement without referencing Jesus Christ.
Mirror neurons are a powerful part of our brain. They allow us to simulate what is going on in the brain of others. We can learn just by observing others. By relaxing, observing and trying (and failing) we become capable of learning new skills faster and more elegantly than by being stressed out and allowing the ego to run our lives.
The best way to diminish the ego that I’ve discovered is to surrender to Christ and allow Him to direct our lives. When we serve Christ we fulfill our highest purpose in life. There is nothing greater we can aspire to. It makes sense that by humbling ourselves and becoming servants to Christ we also become the best versions of ourselves. We become more relaxed, joyful, humble and honest. We become more Christlike.
I invite you to learn more about Christianity and to discover how it’s the truth and offers answers to some of the most pressing questions we all have. You have nothing to lose by learning about it and salvation to gain.
Glory to God.