Imagine this. It’s Thursday evening, you’ve been logged out of work for a while now and you’re happily pottering through your evening – perhaps preparing dinner or even just chilling with a nice glass of wine. Then what happens; you get a call out of the blue from a colleague. They’ve had a rather triggering encounter with an associate and before you know it, you’re on the receiving end of lots of words; words flying at you left, right and centre. Maybe there’s even some huffing and sighing thrown in there.
Where’s that calmness now? Still bathing deep? Thought not.
Welcome to the wonderful world of herd infection… or as it’s also beautifully known – emotional contagion.
What is herd infection?
Herd infection or emotional contagion, is the propensity we have as humans to take on other people’s mental, emotional and physical expressions. And when I say ‘take on,’ I mean the ability we have to replicate what we see – in most cases unconsciously.
Now herd infection exists all thanks to these things we have called mirror neurons. A circuit of interconnected cells in the brain that take note of what they see, right there in front of them, and replicate it for themselves (hence the term mirroring).
In one fascinating study (and for those of you who like the evidence) scientists asked participants to wrap an elastic band around their finger and stretch the band 25 times. They were asked to do this every two days for two weeks. They also asked a second group to simply watch the individuals performing this task.
The results? Those who physically exercised their fingers got a 50% improvement in strength. The second group – the group who did nothing other than watch – they got a 33% increase in strength. Crazy eh?
This is just one study of many – there is a huge amount of research out there; ECG and MRI studies showing very clear activation patterns in the brain and muscle regions in the body, that demonstrate the continuous physical, mental and emotional mirroring that occurs between observer and observed.
Can we influence the expression of our mirror neurons?
The answer here is yes. If you are one of those lovely people who score high on the empathy spectrum (you may even go so far as to call yourself an empath) then you will be more prone to this. The other factor is simply being in the presence of someone you like or connect with.
And this does, of course, make sense. Because mirror neurons are designed to help us bond. We are social creatures after all, and we need connection not only to survive, but to thrive.
Think about this for a moment. Think about a time when someone has been so gloriously happy, it felt like their smile just radiated across the room to you, and you couldn’t help but smile back. That’s your wonderful mirror neurons at work right there.
But of course, for every positive there is a flip side… (and that flip side is the mood hoovers and panic stations who creep their way into your brain space).
Beware the panic stations…
The rise of COVID-19 has provided a very clear demonstration of the way in which herd infection can operate in a rather less useful way. What started off as something that wasn’t taken seriously enough, soon became elevated to a place of national awareness, and not just that – but mass hysteria.
The number of people to declare ‘I’m coming off of FaceBook because I can’t handle all the scare-mongering’ most certainly went up a good few notches. And then there were conversations with friends. We all have them; some more than others. There is always at least one who wants to talk about every disastrous consequence that could possibly occur. Every conspiracy theory, and every possible thing that could go wrong.
Now when you find yourself in those conversations, how do you feel? Calm? Trusting? Nope, didn’t think so. More likely than not, you’ll have felt that little seed of anxiety planted in the pit of your tummy, or the descendence of doom washing over you slowly but surely. Joy.
So herd infection is a real thing.
What does it mean in the context of health?
One of the reasons we have mirror neurons is because they help us to learn. Learning is not down to language alone. When you think about how babies learn, it very much comes down to watching and replicating adult behaviours through the mirror neuron system. But unfortunately, our lovely little mirror neuron system doesn’t really have an ‘off switch’, and so the brain can’t differentiate between things that will help vs hinder us.
In the context of health, this is hugely significant. The obvious factor is that, if we are surrounding ourselves with negativity, anxiety and catastrophe every day, we will be sending our bodies into fight or flight response and triggering all those stress chemicals that are most certainly not conducive to good physical or mental health.
However, there are a few other factors to consider, and these play out rather significantly (but not solely) into how people become stuck with illness.
Introducing Dr Google
When you realise that you are experiencing certain symptoms, you decide you want to find out what on earth is going on. So what do you do? You visit Dr Google. Oh yes. Now Dr Google is full of marvellous stories from others who have gone through exactly the same as you, right?
In your bid to find the answer, where no one else has been able to help (assuming you’ve already been down the doctors and done every test under the sun to identify why you are feeling so fatigued) you scour the internet for all the health bloggers talking about their condition, their illness and their symptoms.
Fortunately, or unfortunately for us, our lovely little mirror neuron system does not discriminate between virtual learning and face-to-face learning. As long as your brain can compute all of the details (the dark murky undertones of life with illness and all the struggles that come with it) it will seek to replicate those patterns. And what does that mean for you dear reader? More symptoms, more struggle. It’s a real thing. So don’t do it. Please.
Taking it into the real world
Now taking the effects of Dr Google into account, what do you think might happen when we take ourselves into the live, face-to-face support group environment? If the support group really is supportive then happy days. And what I mean by that, is supporting in a way that is conducive to positive health outcomes.
But all too often, group discussions can revolve around symptomatology; how severe symptoms are week on week and what new symptoms have or have not been noticed.
This is perfectly understandable – particularly when you find yourself surrounded by like-minded empaths – people who just want to help others. But the question is, what form of support are you providing? Unfortunately, in the world of neuroscience and biochemistry, those chats will most likely be taking you further into the pit of declining health.
Using our lovely mirror neurons to our advantage
I’ve talked a lot about the doom and gloom of our mirror neuron system, but of course, it’s not a one way street. If we can pick up on negative emotions, feelings and ailments, we can OF COURSE, pick up on health giving, positive emotions and states – we just need to find ourselves in the right space for it.
So in its very simplest form; surrounding yourself with all of the things, and people, you aspire to is going to be a good start in keeping your mirror neurons on the right track.
Interestingly, this philosophy very much feeds into the rationale for group courses on the Lightning Process. When people start to see changes in their health, and in others, it becomes a beautiful case of herd infection, in one of the most positive and life-affirming ways.
So have a think about how you can bring these principles into your own life – could it be meeting new people in groups that share similar interests to you? Could it be watching films or youtube videos that epitomise the feelings and qualities you want? Watching sports performers ahead of a competitive game?
On the flip side, consider also how your emotional state may be affecting others. Consider how you ‘use’ your emotional expression and whether there are things you could do to improve in that area. Smiling is always a good start as it stimulates your brain circuitry in all the right ways, and in doing so feeds into others – but that’s a whole other blog right there.
So until next time; please – infect away… in all the RIGHT ways 😉