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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