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Mindfulness and Mirror Neurons in Learning

Bob Little 

December 5, 2014

is_52805554_andyKRAKOSKI_188Former Beatle George Harrison once said, “It’s all in the mind,” while many people have been quoted as saying, “It’s all based on fear.”

Both of these insights have implications for learning and development professionals who’re seeking to provide the most appropriate ways of enabling their organizations’ workforces to be the most knowledgeable, skillful, productive, efficient, and effective that they can be.

The human mind and brain occupy the same physical space, and both can play a vital part in the learning process and applying that learning. So, as an L&D professional, you need to take into account the mind’s and brain’s health and well-being when planning and presenting learning opportunities. You may, therefore, be interested in two recently developed ideas – “mindfulness” and “mirror neurons” – which relate to the human mind (mindfulness) and brain (mirror neurons).

About Mindfulness

Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, defines mindfulness as knowing what’s going on inside and outside of ourselves, moment by moment. The idea behind it is that it can help people who find it hard to cope with the pressures of modern living to reduce their stress levels.

Every day, some 250,000 people in the U.K. are said to miss work because of stress. Moreover, some medical professionals claim that 75 percent of all illnesses are stress related.

Figures published in July 2014 by the American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress estimate the annual cost to employers from stress-related health care and staff taking time off work as a result of stress to be some $300 billion. Some 30 percent of workers in the U.S. who took part in the survey claim to be “always” or “often” under stress at work, while 77 percent say they regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. In addition, 48 percent say that stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional lives.

Using techniques such as meditation, breathing and yoga, mindfulness aims to help people become more aware of their thoughts and feelings so that they’re able to manage them, rather than be overwhelmed by them. Thus, practicing mindfulness can give people insight into their emotions, boost their attention and concentration spans, and improve their relationships.

According to Professor Williams, this kind of awareness is about allowing ourselves to see the present clearly, and using this to positively change the way we view ourselves and our lives.

About Mirror Neurons

The concept of mirror neurons dates from the early 1990s. It’s much less “touchy-feely” than the concept of mindfulness but it’s also more controversial. According to mirror neuron champions, such as Marco Iacoboni of the UCLA School of Medicine, observing the same action – such as grasping a cup – in different contexts elicits different levels of mirror neuron activity in the brain’s right posterior inferior frontal gyrus.

A mirror neuron is said to be a neuron that fires in the brain of an observer in sympathy with a similar one that fires simultaneously in the brain of someone taking a particular action. In other words, one neuron “mirrors,” in one brain, the behavior of another neuron in another brain. For example, you see a stranger stub his toe and you flinch, or you see someone react with disgust while tasting food and your stomach turns over.

For years, neuroscientists have pondered our ability to understand what other people are experiencing. Now that the concept of mirror neurons has been developed, research in this area is currently addressing the evolution of language and the interpretation of social interactions, and providing a view on how and why we develop empathy – and socialize – with others. It’s also been applied – negatively – to help explain cognitive disorders, especially autism, schizophrenia and other conditions of the brain characterized by poor social interactions. However, at present, there seems to be a lack of widely accepted research-based models to illuminate this whole issue.

According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, in 2010, a research group examining the brains of conscious epileptic patients about to undergo neurosurgery claimed that they’d obtained the first direct evidence of human mirror neurons. This evidence pointed to some of the brain cells firing both when the patients performed and observed an action – but the activity of almost as many cells decreased during execution and observation. This raised doubts that what was observed were mirror neurons. Furthermore, the cells were located in the hippocampus – an area of the brain involved in memory formation – and not previously thought to be part of the presumed mirror neuron system.

How will you use the concepts of mindfulness and mirror neurons to design and deliver effective learning in your organization?

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One comment on “Mindfulness and Mirror Neurons in Learning”:

  1. James wrote:

    This is fascinating stuff, thank you Mind Tools for sharing it. One of my new objective for 2015 will be to be more mindful.