Catch my attitude: Emotional contagion

Anxiously Concerned,  an insightful Baha’i-inspired blog, discusses a New York Times  essay by Daniel Goleman (author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships) on the link between positive relationships and health. Goleman describes the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain that cause us to adopt the emotional state of those around us:

Research on the link between relationships and physical health has established that people with rich personal networks — who are married, have close family and friends, are active in social and religious groups — recover more quickly from disease and live longer. But now the emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of how people’s brains entrain as they interact, adds a missing piece to that data.

The most significant finding was the discovery of “mirror neurons,” a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person.

Mirror neurons offer a neural mechanism that explains emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed. This brain-to-brain link may also account for feelings of rapport, which research finds depend in part on extremely rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing and movements as they interact. In short, these brain cells seem to allow the interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology.

Commentary from Anxiously Concerned:

The article goes on to assert that emotional closeness allows the biology of one person to affect the biology of another to a greater extent. In essense, the greater the level of intimacy between two people, the greater the emotionally uplifting effect their presence can have on each other. This leads to the finding cited in the article that “the emotional status of our main relationships has a significant impact on our overall pattern of cardiovascular and neuroendocrine activity.”

The concepts of neural mirrors and emotional contagion shed scientific insight on the notion expressed in the following passage from the Bahá’í Writings, articulated simply and elegantly by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

“I want you to be happy . . . to laugh, smile and rejoice in order that others may be made happy by you.”

In another passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá alludes to the implications of the principle of contagion for education:

“Education must be considered as most important, for as diseases in the world of bodies are extremely contagious, so, in the same way, qualities of spirit and heart are extremely contagious. Education has a universal influence, and the differences caused by it are very great.”

The parallels between these long standing teachings of the Bahá’í Faith and the cutting-edge discoveries of science continually amaze. The last quotation from Abdu’l-Bahá seems to point to an even deeper implication of the concept of contagion–that beyond affecting our health or mood in a particular circumstance, the contagious influence of those around has a profound effect on our spiritual and moral development, particularly in the case of long-standing relationships. It certainly is something to ponder!

4 Responses to “Catch my attitude: Emotional contagion”

  1. 1 Collis November 20, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    That is interesting. In the book Emotional Intelligence (can’t for the life of me remember who its by) the author cites studies that show successful married couples are better at mirroring each others feelings - even when they don’t interact verbally. I suppose thats the “rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing and movements as they interact”.

    What i think is curious though about this all is that presumably negative attitude/emotions and lack of education are also contagious…

  2. 2 Misagh November 21, 2006 at 9:25 am

    Collis the good man - great to have you on my blog!

    I agree that the principle of emotional contagion also extends to negative states such as anger, depression and ignorance (the last of which you refer to as lack of education)…

    I think we only need give a cursory look at the world around us to observe that ignorance is contagious, when there is no education to fill that void. As fanaticism is contagious, when there is no education and real faith to fill that void, and anger is contagious when there is no forgivness or compassion to fill that void.

  3. 3 Victor November 21, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    Dear Misagh, Thanks for the link! I am really enjoying your blog from a hemisphere away.

    Just thought I’d add in response to Collis’ comment that, interestingly, Emotional Intelligence was written by the same author as Social Intelligence–Daniel Goleman.

  4. 4 Collis November 27, 2006 at 2:04 pm

    Thanks Misagh, I’m subscribed :-) Thank goodness for RSS, its just so damn hard to track all these websites out there otherwise. And I’m happy you’ve moved to WordPress too! Blogger is not … ideal.

    That Daniel Goleman sure is a clever chap! I loved Emotional Intelligence, I read it thrice, I shall go find Social Intelligence, presumably it will be equally fascinating … that is unless of course he has simply thrown a new cover on his old material to flog a few more books :-)

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