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Have you ever been sitting in a waiting room, when all of a sudden someone yawns and before you know it a wave of yawns has worked its way around the room? See, we have evolved by mimicking others, which includes our emotions as well. Subconsciously we catch each other’s feelings through – that is known as mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action.
They were first discovered in the early 1990s, when a team of Italian researchers found individual neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.
Studies have now shown that when people observe someone’s facial expression, electrodes on their own facial muscles record muscle activity, as if they were making a tiny version of the same expression. This is known as emotional contagion.
Emotional contagion describes the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviours directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in other people. In other words, it’s a form of empathy; it’s the way in which we understand another person’s feelings.
From birth, we ‘practise’ emotional contagion: mimicking our parents (and vice versa) as a way of creating a strong bond between ourselves and them. Without emotional contagion, bonds will either not form, or they’ll be much weaker.
What’s interesting is that a team of psychologists claimed that stress could be ‘caught’ from strangers. The study involved a group of volunteers who were asked to perform either a public speaking exercise or a mental arithmetic challenge while others observed. Researchers measured the level of cortisol and stress-related salivary enzymes in the stressed speakers and compared those results to those of the observers. They found the stress response in the observers was proportional to that of their paired speakers.
Stress can be communicated and can be passed on by factors which include tone of voice, facial expressions, posture and, if you’re close enough, odour. Though emotional contagion can also be spread even without face-to-face interaction. In a study by Facebook, which took place over one week in January 2012, researchers randomly selected 689,003 people who view Facebook in English, and manipulated the number of positive or negative posts people saw in their feeds.
They found that people who had positive words removed from their newsfeeds made fewer positive posts and more negative ones, whereas people who had negative words removed made fewer negative posts and more positive ones.
Emotional contagion obeys what is known as the three degrees of influence rule: everything you do or say has an effect on your network, having an impact on your friends (one degree), your friends’ friends (two degrees), and even your friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees).
The moral of the story is that catching good or bad vibes from those around you (and maybe even those ‘virtually’ around you) is a contagion. Just being around positive people can be energising, motivating, and inspiring, just as much as being around unhappy or depressed people can bring you down. So be aware of the people and information you surround yourself with, because we ‘catch’ each other’s emotions all the time.
Dean Griffiths is the founder and CEO of Energy Fusion, the first interactive online platform to subjectively assess physical and mental health.
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