How We Read Each Other's Mind

Just by looking at someone, you experience them. Ever fallen in love at first sight or had a “gut feeling” about someone? You internally resonated with them. Ever seen someone trip and momentarily felt a twinge of pain for them? Observing them activates the “pain matrix” in your brain, research shows. Ever been moved by the sight of a person helping someone? You vicariously experienced it and thereby felt elevation.

We are wired to read each others’ bodies. Not just in terms of physical appearance but at a subtler and more complex level that lies at the root of lasting love, empathy and social connection. This process is called “resonance” and it is so automatic and rapid that it often happens unconsciously.

Like an acute sounding board, parts of our brain internally echo what others do and feel. Appropriately called “mirror neurons,” they serve as in-built monitors that reflect other people’s state of mind. Someone’s smile, for example, activates the smile muscles in our faces, while a frown activates our frown muscles, according to research by Ulf Dimberg at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Before even talking to someone, you have already downloaded large amounts of information about them on a subconscious level. “We are programmed to observe each other’s states so we can more appropriately interact, empathize, or assert our boundaries, whatever the situation may require,” says Paula Niedenthal, Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison specialized in resonance.

Go on, Smile

Eye-contact is the crucial first step for resonance, according to Niedenthal. Smiling is a close second. Our brain actually seems prewired to recognize smiles above and beyond any other facial expression. In an experimental procedure in which participants had to recognize facial expressions, they were quicker to recognize positive facial expressions, such as smiles, than any other facial expression of emotion. Niedenthal’s research shows that not only do we trigger others’ smile muscles, but we ourselves reap the benefits thereof: Both the act of smiling and seeing someone else smile is rewarding, activation neural circuits in the brain associated with happiness and well-being. Ever had that awkward moment when you smile at someone and they don’t smile back? Well don’t worry, you’re actually doing yourself and them a favor by activating both of your smile muscles and the associated neurochemical reaction of well-being. According to the Facial Feedback Hypothesis, you will both end up feeling happier.

Romance and Resonance

Resonance may also be at the root of long-term romance. In a study by Niedenthal of couples that had been married for 25 years, she found that the partners’ faces tended to look alike over time and that, the more successful and happy their marriage, the more alike they looked. From these findings, she concluded that their facial morphology had became similar through years of resonating with each other. By understanding each other’s internal states, they were able to support and respond to each other more appropriately and derive satisfaction from their marriage.

Empathy and Botox

Interestingly, if we somehow block our ability to mimic or “resonate,” our own ability to read others decreases. Researchers approached people who were about to receive a botox injection that paralyzes the muscles between their eyebrows. Botox prevents the brows from furrowing to reduce wrinkles and thereby blocks the ability to resonate as well. Low and behold, botox thereby also slowed participants’ ability to empathize and understand other people’s emotions presumably because they could no longer resonate as quickly as before.

Resonance, Unconscious Processing & Gut Feelings

Our brain is wired to read cues so subtle that although our brain may not consciously register them (“he doesn’t seem angry”), our body will respond. For example, when someone is angry but keeps their feelings bottled up they may not look angry on the outside but our blood pressure will increase, according to research by James Gross at Stanford University. We might feel uncomfortable around that person without understanding why. This may be a clue into “gut feelings.”

We are so sensitive to physical cues that we will respond to them even in a robot. In a recent study by David Desteno, a robot was programmed to display 3 gestures associated with mistrust (crossing arms, touching face and hands, or leaning back) in an interaction with a participant. Although the participants knew that they were engaging with a robot, the very fact that it displayed those gestures caused them to judge the robot as untrustworthy.

Social Connection, Vulnerability & Resonance

My first post discussed the critical importance of social connection for health and well-being. Resonance is one of the keys to social connection. As discussed in my second post, vulnerability is another key, particularly for intimacy. Establishing eye-contact, smiling at a stranger assumes the openness, courage, and the willingness to go out on a limb and be vulnerable.

For those who think doing so is too much of a challenge, Carol Dweck’s ground-breaking research has repeatedly shown that our beliefs shape our experiences in life. If we understand that the brain is wired to adapt to learn and change, we will also have the ability and courage to do so. People who are willing to go out on a limb by connecting with others through a smile create a positive feedback loop: smiles engage others, invite positive interactions, create social bonds, and develop a sense of connection that reinforces the inclination to smile again. To quote Louis Armstrong, “when you smile, the whole world smiles with you.”

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