Watching someone do something can make you experience it as if you are doing it yourself… hard to believe?

Sounds far-fetched! But, believe me it’s not a figment drawn from science fiction but grounded in neuroscience studies…

mirror neurons

I recently came across a reference to mirror neurons in neuroscience studies and the more I read about them the more I got intrigued…

A simple explanation suggests that there are specialised neurons (named the mirror neurons) that are seen to fire both when a person acts and when the person observes the same action performed by another – thus mirroring the behaviour of the actor, as though the observer was himself performing the action.

If this is true, then its almost as if the mirror neuron is performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action… just think about the possibilities – it can start to explain simple behavioural and complex social responses… I have often wondered why most of us get so engaged and emotionally charged when we watch our favourite sports… it’s almost as if we are playing ourselves! Could it be the mirror neurons in play?

As with any new discovery it’s a subject of speculation and intense debate and while its premature for us to draw conclusions, I am personally biased by my passion for understanding how our brain adapts and using that to simplify every day activities.

The potential of the discovery in itself is enough motivation (for me) to delve deeper into the subject and the initial opinions that I have found have not yet disappointed me. (Ref. A good introduction to the subject is a TED talk  by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran where he describes his research on mirror neurons).

Most of the discussions talk about the potential role and importance of mirror neurons in two different areas – from understanding the actions of other people or empathy (where we could literally experience what others are experiencing and adopt the other’s point of view) to learning new skills by imitation (where the mirror systems simulate observed actions). The experiments show that while we can empathise and imitate other person’s action, we are still able to distinguish, eventually, that the action is not done by us since we do not get the same feedback from the sensory receptors in the skin (touch, pain etc.)

The importance of empathy and imitation is not hard to imagine in any context – from broad social and cultural contexts to dynamic business environments. As our environments become more global and we work in geographically distributed teams, our primary business interactions are centered on email, conference calls, social and collaboration tools, etc. As the opportunity to watch someone in action has notably gone down, it has inadvertently restricted the use of our natural ability of imitation and empathy in everyday interactions.

It is believed that video can fill this void – it provides an opportunity for people to observe and watch others as they speak and act… it is becoming increasingly apparent that embedding video in our interactions and work-flows in product design not just drives simplicity of action, but influences user behaviour through an increased ability to understand and empathise with others and to co-relate more effectively by imitating behaviour and skills.

I genuinely believe that by understanding what makes people act the way they do, we can design more intuitive and engaging products and interactions that match their natural way…

ps. Of-course I cannot deny that my excitement extends beyond every day social and behavioural application and I am equally fascinated by the possibility of a scientific explanation to the Indian philosophy (that I have grown up with,) that is based on the belief that there is no real independent self and we are all part of the same consciousness)… after all who knows we are all connected by neurons and we just need to dissolve the barrier of the physical self to communicate and interact – far more effectively than the current digital plane of the internet!

This article was first published @LinkedIn on May 07, 2016. 

 

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I recently concluded that I learn more from Success than Failure… and yet, isn’t it ironic that we are still obsessed with learning from failure?

right or wrong

It is popular belief – especially in the startup eco-system – that failure is a stepping-stone to success. I cannot deny that this gave me a lot of confidence (and comfort) when I co-founded a technology startup, as I believed that the worst outcome (for me) would be all the great learning that I will acquire, even if we faltered on the way.

Now, after many years of living the startup journey, I have lots of learning – both good and bad. But, being true to the spirit of learning from failure, I always diligently record everything that doesn’t work. I even look at it often, analyse it sometimes, and consciously try not to follow the same approach again. But then everything changed one day…

It was just one of those days when I was flustered – I was looking for answers and I was getting irritated as I realised that for every previous effort that had failed, I only knew what did not work. But I still had no clue of what would work? I asked myself – how effective is that learning – if I still have to go back to the drawing board and continue the search for answers on how to make it work? I was not very upbeat as I had gone through the process once and failed to find the answer, and what was the guarantee that the second search would be any more fruitful?

In that state of exasperation, I happened to come across an interesting neuroscience research that suggested that brain cells only learn from experience when we do something right and not when we fail. I was intrigued.

I wondered if I could correlate it with my own personal experience – so I tried to test the theory on the problem at hand. Our mobile-video based service for sharing experiences, stories and insights is deployed across 25+ countries in Europe. Most groups are very actively engaged, but few still require constant nudges. All our discussion around driving adoption in the low-activity groups has always focused on what wasn’t working for these groups. That day we changed our outlook – we instead discussed everything that was working for the high-activity groups. We uncovered simple observations and found interesting patterns. We realised that we just had never bothered to re-apply this successful learning back into the groups that required external stimuli.

That was the day I realised, that my obsession with learning from failure meant that I was simply – taking for granted – everything that was working for us. Here was an opportunity for us to focus on the success and build upon it – I knew what worked and I could make it happen again, maybe even do it much better. And yet I was spending more of my time in learning from failures. Why? It made no sense.

I am now a convert. I now track our successes as much as (if not more) than the failed attempts. Of-course I know that I need to be cautious and ensure that I am not blinded by success. More importantly I am cognisant that I need to continuously strive to do better than the last success. And, of-course it also does not mean that I overlook failures – but I now look at them in the right context.

Learn from success is my new mantra! I realise that the need is not to glorify success – but to recognize core strengths and convert them into strategic assets. Just as it is important to manage our weaknesses, we also need to diligently work on developing our strengths. And believe me – it is harder to focus on strengths, far much easier to lapse into failures, regrets, emotions.

This article was first published on LinkedIn on September 13, 2015 [ref. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/i-recently-concluded-learn-more-from-success-than-failure-arti-khanna]

Arti is the co-founder of humanLearning – a fast growing UK-based technology startup – setup with an earnest desire to make the life of busy professionals simpler and more effective. humanLearning is disrupting business work-flows thru WinSight – a mobile-video based platform that empowers ‘every’ professional to benefit from each other’s experiences & insights in the easiest, fastest and most impactful way.