By Peter M. Vishton, PhD, William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
The emotion of anger has a long reputation as something bad and uncontrolled. As with other aspects of our brains, though, it’s not only possible to outsmart anger, but also to turn anger into something positive and helpful. Professor Vishton explains.
Responding to Anger
The next time someone is being mean to you because they are angry, try an experiment involving mirror neurons. Be nice to them and see what happens.
There are many ways you might choose to be nice, but the key is to be unexpectedly nice—to be almost shockingly unexpected. Sincerely compliment the mean person’s appearance.
Give the mean person a gift. Smile warmly, look the mean person in the eyes, and ask him or her to go to lunch with you, your treat.
A lot of recent research suggests that when you say or do something nice like this, you will partially take control of the emotional centers of the aggressor’s brain and turn off his or her ability to be mean to you—at least, to some extent.
Mirror Neuron System
The reasons for the effectiveness of this technique begin with the brain’s mirror neuron system. These neural circuits were first discovered in the motor cortex of monkeys, but a variety of studies has demonstrated that they are present and perhaps more complex in humans. When you perform a movement of your body, you activate particular neural circuits within your motor cortex.
If you make a particular movement with your right hand—flexing your fingers sequentially, for example—the action is coordinated by neural circuits located in a particular region of the left frontal lobe. The human brain has this crossover organization throughout the nervous system, with the left side of the body controlled by the right side of the brain and vice versa.
When you watch someone making that same sequential flexing of the fingers, that same region of your brain will become active. Note that this brain region is active even when you, yourself, aren’t moving.
You are just perceiving and thinking about the hand movements. The activations in that motor cortex will be of a lower magnitude than they would be if you were performing the movement yourself, but the same region is activated and in a similar fashion.
These neurons were first discovered by a research team led by Giacomo Rizzolatti. They described them as mirror neurons because the neural system was, in essence, mirroring the activities of another individual, as if the observer was performing the actions him or herself.
How Mirror Works
Our brains seem to engage in this mirroring as part of the process of understanding the actions of others, in determining if and how to respond: “What is that guy doing? And why? Well, if I were engaged in that action, what would I be thinking?”
Humans also do a lot of important learning by imitation. If you’ve ever taught a child how to tie shoelaces, you likely didn’t describe it verbally.
You demonstrated probably slowly and repeatedly how to tie shoelaces. The child watched you carefully, and the child’s brain mirrored that activity and eventually tried to reproduce the observed, mirrored actions.
If you watch someone perform a particular dance a few times, even if you’ve never tried it yourself, you will likely be able to approximate it the very first time you try. While you were watching the dance performed, your brain was interpreting that dance by simulating your own performance, doing that the whole time.
Experiment with Changing Movements
These mirror neuron systems can lead to interesting changes in our everyday behaviors. The next time you are having a face-to-face conversation with someone, try a fun experiment. Make your conversation partner do things that he or she would not otherwise do.
As you are engaged in the conversation, cross your arms—left over right. Over the course of the next 30 seconds, the probability that your friend will cross his or her arms will be greatly increased.
If it doesn’t work the first time, uncross your arms for about 30 seconds and then repeat the process. Maybe, this time, crossing your right arm over the left.
The possible movements you can try here are almost limitless. Try leaning back against your chair and put your arms behind your head. Stroke your chin. Touch your earlobe. Tap your fingers together.
Now, your conversation partner isn’t a marionette. Not every action you perform will be immediately mimicked.
As you engage in these behaviors, though, your friend’s motor cortex is being activated. It will be mirroring your actions with a low level of coordinated activation. As your friend continues talking, the likelihood of these actions being imitated is greatly increased.
Even if you don’t feel like trying to see if you can influence the body movements of your friends, you can see this mirroring behavior if you watch two people having an intense conversation. As they pay close attention to one another, they will tend to make many of the same gestures and movements.
This mirroring is an important part of how we relate to one another. If nothing else, it conveys that we’re paying close attention.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.