We are learning much more about how the brain performs thanks to neuroscience. The impact of mirror neurons and visualisation are just some of the newer discoveries that can help us
I remember the very first time I watched the movie JAWS. It was in a small cinema in Kingston, Surrey in England on a cold Saturday afternoon. When the shark appeared on the big screen and attacked that poor girl, I screamed like everyone else in the cinema. Yes, it was an automatic response to what I saw on the big screen.
Why did I and others react in such a way? After all, we knew it was just a movie and not real. Yet, we responded in a childlike way to the fiction we were watching.
Many years later, I know the answer. We have a group of cells in our brain called “mirror cells” or “mirror neurons.” Neuroscientists are still researching the full role of these cells but what we know so far does help us understand why we get scared when watching a movie such as JAWS or other thriller movies; why we cry when we watch a movie with a sad ending, and why we are joyful when we watch Father of the Bride.
You see, what mirror neurons do is respond as if that particular action is happening to us. So in the JAWS movie for example, the mirror neurons responded as if we were being attacked and not the girl in the movie. In some ways, it goes back to what I shared in one of my previous columns – the amygdala is hijacked and the reptilian brain responds in the flee mode even though the action is not actually happening to us.
Role of mirror neurons
The brain does not differentiate an actual event and an imagined event. Mirror neurons also play a role in empathy. We feel sad when an unfortunate event happens to someone else, especially someone close to us, because the mirror network interprets that event as happening to us.
Mirror neurons are located in the front of the human brain – the prefrontal cortex. When the mirror neurons are activated, they send a signal to other parts of the brain and a certain behaviour results, depending on the nature of the event that has been observed.
Mirror neurons were first discovered by a team of scientists in Italy as recently as 1992. The scientists attached electrodes to the brains of monkeys and observed what happened when the monkey ate something compared to when the monkey watched another monkey or human eat the same thing.
They discovered that the same area of the brain fired up when the monkey watched the other primate do the action as when the monkey did. Has your mouth ever watered when watching someone else eat something delicious? Why should that happen when you are merely watching someone else do it? It is due to these mirror neurons that are firing.
The art of visualisation
As I mentioned at the outset of this column, the brain does not differentiate between real and imagined events. Knowing what we have learned about mirror cells, we can use a technique called visualisation to help us prepare for major events. Let me share an example.
Some years ago, I was on a committee organising an annual company retreat. This event was a big deal. Over 600 people would attend.
The highlight of the event would be a gala dinner. At the gala dinner, participants from various offices in the region would compete in an event similar to Britain’s Got Talent. A key participant for the event was the emcee.
We could not get anyone in our region to play the emcee role for various reasons. So I volunteered. My offer was met with silence by the leadership team. I was known for many things -but commanding the attention of 600 people at a gala dinner was clearly not one!
But due to the lack of any other option, the leadership team had no choice but to accept my offer. In the week leading up to the event, I was allowed to arrive at the beautiful resort in Bali to prepare for the event. Each night, I would lie in bed and visualise the whole event – what I would say; how I hoped the attendees would react and what the whole ambience would be like.
I literally closed my eyes and played the whole event out in my mind. This was well before I studied neuroscience. I have since learned that what I did each night is called visualisation.
The brain makes all these neural connections. The repeated act of visualisation every night for four nights prepared the amygdala so that on the actual night of the event, as far as the brain was concerned, it had already been through the event on four previous occasions.
There was no fear response as would otherwise have been the case. I was calm, and everything went as I had visualised it would go. Twelve months later, I was invited to be emcee again for the annual retreat.
Visualisation is a technique that neuroscientists recommend when preparing for big events – a major presentation; even a lawyer preparing for opening or closing arguments. There is a difference between practising and visulalisation.
Practising means knowing exactly what you will say; visualisation means actually playing it in your mind. Practicing will help you be articulate and know the facts; visualisation will ensure that you are calm and presenting as you imagined you want to present.
I want to emphasise that what you are doing is preparing the brain so that you are not affected by nerves and are able to be at your best level for the event. I am told that top sport coaches frequently ask their athletes to use visualisation techniques to prepare the mind for the event.
Thanks to neuroscience, we are learning much more about how the brain performs. The impact of mirror neurons and visualisation are just some of the newer discoveries that can help us. – The Health
Tips on how to visualise
1. Find a quiet space.
2. Make sure you know exactly what you want to visualise. You should not be referring to any script or slides.
3. Close your eyes. Imagine you are in the hall or the room where the presentation will take place.
4. Take note of what the place
looks like and feels like. If you have not been to the location, imagine any room or hall that you think would be similar to the location of your event.
5. Visualise the faces of the individuals that will be listening to you. It is important that the brain is familiar with the key attendees. If there are going to be many attendees (as was the case for me), just think of a few key individuals who will be in attendance.
6. Once you have set the whole scene up, play the event – say what you expect to say on the actual day. You can do this silently or speak it out. If there are areas where you are supposed to pause, pause. If there are parts where you expect the audience to laugh, imagine them laughing.
7. When you have been through the session, repeat it. Ideally, you would do this over a few days, but if not possible, for example, if the event is the next day, then at least repeat it a couple of times, taking short breaks in between.
Tony Pereira is an Independent Consultant and Founder of SuperTrouper365