An introduction to mirror neurons

Empathy is a fundamentally human trait. We’re a highly social species, connecting and learning from one other by reading and copying facial expressions and movements.

Recent studies in neuroscience have shed further light on these interactions, revealing that when we watch someone doing something, cells in our brain fire in the same way as if we were doing it ourselves.  A set of brain cells found on either side of our head, known as mirror neurons, are fundamental to this process. We learn by looking and copying, which means when we see someone doing an action, we can learn how to do it too by imagining and sharing their experience.

Research also suggests that these neurons also enable us to mirror other people’s feelings and connect emotionally by sending messages to the emotional or limbic part of the brain, so it seems mirror neurons are key not only to how we learn, but also how we experience the world around us and build good relationships with others.

Want more? Here’s a great PBS video introduction to mirror neurons.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


Why it’s OK to make mistakes

When you approach a new task are you focused on getting it right, or getting better?

Many of us approach new challenges with a fear of making mistakes. Rather than taking on a new task with confidence and energy we’re held back by our “be good” mindset and the need to prove how clever we are.

In fact studies show that when we feel we’re allowed to make mistakes we are actually significantly less likely to make them. This is where the “get better” mindset comes into its own. Focusing on learning and developing our skills and accepting that we may make mistakes along the way means we are more likely to stay motivated, even in the face of challenges and setbacks.

The “be good” mindset can be a source of frustration and anxiety – we worry about making mistakes because mistakes suggest we lack ability. This in turn undermines our performance by compromising our working memory and disrupting the cognitive processes we rely on for creative and analytical thinking. Focusing too much on doing things perfectly prevents us from engaging in the exploratory thinking and behaviour that create new knowledge and innovation.

If this sounds all too familiar, Dr Heidi Grant Halvorsan of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center suggests three steps to help change your mindset:

  1. Begin a new project by acknowledging what is difficult and unfamiliar, and accepting that you will need some time to really get a handle on it. You may make some mistakes, and that’s ok.  That’s how ability works – it develops.
  2. Reach out to others when you run into trouble. Too often, we hide our mistakes, rather than sharing them with those who could give us guidance.  Mistakes don’t make you look foolish – but acting like you are a born expert on everything certainly will.
  3. Try not to compare your own performance to other people. Instead, compare your performance today to your performance last week, last month, or last year. You may make mistakes, you may not be perfect, but are you improving?

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


Productivity tips from the pros

If you’re struggling to get things done, there are lots of tips from psychology professionals to boost your productivity. Psychology Today collected some of the best a few years ago, and we’ve been trying them out at Mindapples and with our corporate clients.

Here are our favourites:

  1. Avoid multitasking. Block out time when you avoid all other tasks, and remember to put your phone and email away.
  2. Plan regular exercise breaks (even walking helps), to refresh your mind and boost your creativity.
  3. Rather than allocating a fixed amount of time to a task, break it down into doable chunks and then work until that chunk is done.
  4. Free up mental space by making a plan to deal with unresolved issues, to help you focus on the task at hand.
  5. Do things badly. Getting started is often the hardest part when it comes to tackling a task. Doing a first version without worrying about the quality gets the ball rolling and you can work on improving it later.
  6. Be realistic. We often overestimate how much we can get done. Identify one important task and make that your non-negotiable goal for the day.

Productivity is a subjective business though, about learning what helps you stay fresh, and which tasks you find easiest to do. The more you get to know your mind, the easier you’ll find it to work in a way that works for you.

Learn more about how to be productive in our latest book, The Mind Manual, and our award-winning guide to managing your mind at work, A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


How to be happy

Mindapples doesn’t write much about happiness (there are plenty of fine organisations around doing that); instead we focus on mental health, feeling at home in your head, and accepting whatever feelings you have.

Wanting to be happier is a perfectly good goal though, and most of the things positive psychologists and happiness campaigners advocate can be a part of a mentally healthy lifestyle. In our latest book, The Mind Manual, we even featured a whole chapter on ‘How to be happy’, reviewing the psychology of happiness and how to apply it to our lives.

One of the best resources we found was that the British Psychological Society has compiled a ‘guide to happiness’, filled with experimentally-validated tips for being happier. It’s always a little strange to read scientific guides to things that are as subjective and philosophically complex as ‘happiness’ – after all, the pursuit of happiness is more than simple biochemistry – but there are some interesting findings in the piece.

Please do read it for yourself if you have time, but here are a few of our favourites:

  • We’re happier when we’re busy. Although our natural inclination might be to chill out, finding things you love doing is a great recipe for a happy life.
  • Sharing good news helps. Be careful not to brag or make other people feel bad by comparison, but finding people to share your joys makes the joys sweeter.
  • Don’t imagine everyone else is happy. Looking around the world, and particularly the internet, it can feel like everyone else has it made – but in fact they probably feel just as up-and-down as you do.
  • Little and often is the best way. Small, frequent daily mood boosters – mindapples, if you like – help more than big life changes or audacious goals.
  • We’re resilient to happiness – but also unhappiness. The same things that make it hard to stay permanently cheerful also make it hard to stay permanently sad.

Happiness means different things to everyone though, so don’t aspire to feel “the right way”. Instead, notice the times when you feel good, think about what you’re doing in those times, and try to do a bit more of them. Happiness isn’t an end-state to be reached; it’s a habit to be practiced.

Learn more about how to be happy and healthy in our illustrated guides to the mind, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


Can you catch happiness?

If you had a virus you would probably want to avoid passing it on to friends and colleagues, but did you know emotion travels over social networks in much the same way viruses do?

That’s not to say emotions are like diseases of course: being grumpy won’t make you or the people around you sick. But research shows that wellbeing is shared within networks and spreads based on social ties, so your wellbeing can have a direct impact on the people around you – not just with friends and family, but in work too.

Low wellbeing in workplaces is associated with a range of health and business problems such as increased absences, lower productivity and higher health insurance costs, so focusing on improving the wellbeing of employees is important for the bottom line as well as its ethical implications.

Make emotional contagion work for you: if you run a business, boosting the wellbeing of staff could result in a contagion with positive implications for the overall health of the business, in all senses. You can use this principle in all your relationships too: are you spreading good moods, or bringing people down? So think about what moods your people are passing on, to friends, colleagues and customers, and harness emotional contagion to benefit everyone.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


Drink water! What dehydration does to your mind

We all know water is good for us, and it’s certainly easy to get hold of it, but we don’t often stop to think about how beneficial it can be, not just for our physical health, but for our minds too.

Recent research shows that dehydration not only affects our physical wellbeing, but also our mood, and our ability to think clearly.

Studies carried out at the University of Connecticut in 2012 showed that even mild dehydration – approximately 1.5% below normal body water levels – caused participant to experience fatigue, tension and anxiety, and difficulties when working on mental tasks. The adverse effects on mood were particularly prominent in women, both at rest and during exercise.

Mild dehydration can be as little as 500ml less than you need – the equivalent of one small bottle of water. Even this small amount can make a big difference.

They also found that staying hydrated is as important for those who work in an office sitting down as it is for those who are physically active. Negative effects of dehydration are experienced whether one is resting or walking on a treadmill for 40 minutes.

So make sure you drink enough water during the day. It’s an easy and effective way to help prevent low moods, tension and poor mental ability. Experts recommend drinking 2 litres, or 8 standard glasses, of water a day, to stay hydrated and keep yourself mentally effective (though bear in mind you will also get water from the food you eat too). So drink more water! It’s free!

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.



What can you do about a bad mood?

We all find ourselves in a bad mood from time to time. The triggers and stresses may vary, but understanding what’s going on in our mind and body can make it easier to deal with it.

Some psychologists believe a bad mood can be caused by ‘ego depletion’ – a form of mental tiredness – and that if we use up our willpower trying to avoid temptation (e.g. food) we drain our cognitive resources. The harder we push our minds to avoid something the more likely we are to get irritated, angry and cynical, which can raise blood pressure, stop digestion, and elevate heart rate – causing a bad mood.

Researchers have also found that being in a bad mood gives you a sense of tunnel vision: if you’re in a good mood, you have a wider view of your surroundings whereas bad moods can cause us you to miss things.

So what can you do to alleviate a bad mood?

  1. Eat
    Your bad mood could be caused by low blood sugar in which case food is key. Eating regenerates nutrients depleted during the day. Fatty acids can have a positive effect on emotions and spicy foods release endorphins. Win.
  2. Exercise
    Moderate or high-level exercise releases endorphins, which can improve your mood almost immediately. This happiness boost may not last long, but it should be enough to lift you out of a fug.
  3. Listen to music
    Music can trigger a release of dopamine into your brain and provides a “potent pleasurable stimulus” as you follow and anticipate a tune. Mozart or Madonna, crank up the volume and feel your spirits lift.
  4. Embrace it
    It’s not all doom and gloom, a bad mood can trigger more careful, attentive thinking and the accompanying tunnel vision can help you focus more completely on a specific task. It can also make you more persuasive because it promotes concrete ideas and communications styles. So if you can’t beat the blues turn them to your advantage and tackle a complex problem or project.

Above all though, try to remember that bad moods are natural and healthy. Just as you will feel happy some days for no particular reason, you can also feel down. Don’t agonise over the reasons too much, or panic about changing how you feel. Instead, notice how you’re feeling, and remind yourself that the feeling will pass. Give your mind a bit of time, hold off on quick fixes, and see how you feel later: sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

Need more ideas for coping with a bad mood? Try this list of handy articles on managing moods:

And of course you can learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


Kindness is good for you

Being kind to other people is officially good for you – and it seems it’s all down to a nerve that links social contact with positive emotions.

The vagus nerve links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding. Higher ‘vagal tone’ is also associated with intimacy with others and more altruistic behaviour.

Recent studies suggest that people who regularly practice mindful ‘loving kindness’ meditations, focusing on warm, compassionate thoughts about themselves and others, show an increase in positive emotions like joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope. The emotional and psychological changes brought about by positive emotion and connectedness to others, seem to correlate with an improvement in vagal function.

The vagus also regulates how our heart rate changes with our breathing so being kind and compassionate to other people could also be a great way to improve your physical health. In general, the greater the vagal tone, the more varied your heart-rate and the lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and other major killers, so every positive interaction you have can have a positive impact on your own health and happiness.

Try these two articles for more information about the health benefits of kindness and mindfulness meditation.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


The Downsides of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is often touted as the key to personal and professional success, but it can also have its dark side.

Research suggests that when people have self-serving motives, emotional intelligence can become a weapon for manipulating others. In a work context, employees who engage in the most harmful behaviour often possess high emotional intelligence, which they use for personal gain. People who are good at controlling their own emotions can disguise their true feelings and when they understand what others are feeling they can motivate them to act against their own best interests. In terms of leadership there can be a fine line between motivation and manipulation (Adolf Hitler’s speeches displayed high levels of ‘emotional intelligence’, for example).

Studies have also revealed that high emotional intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate to better performance. Being able to read and regulate emotions is a clear plus for jobs requiring attention to emotions (e.g. sales reps, call centre staff, counsellors, managers). However, for jobs that have fewer emotional demands (e.g. mechanics, scientists, accountants) it seems that the more emotionally intelligent an employee, the lower their performance. In this context the ability to read facial expressions, body language and vocal tones appears to be more of a distraction than an asset.

Being able to understand and manage our emotions can be a powerful tool, but it’s worth bearing in mind that like any skill, emotional intelligence may not always be associated with good intent. Always use your powers to improve the lives and emotional states of people around you – because how they feel affects you too!

Read more about the dark side of emotional intelligence in The Atlantic.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.