Breaking News: Moods are Contagious

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Free Four Teens Jumping in Parking Lot Creative Commons“A teacher affects eternity; no one can tell where his influence stops.” –Henry Adams

I’ve noticed that if I make a conscious effort to inject energy to my teaching, my students always seem more upbeat too.  It doesn’t matter what I say. If I say it with a smile, if my tone is positive and cheerful, if I’m standing up straight, if I’m moving around and making eye contact—the kids are more engaged too.  The opposite is also true.  If I’m blah, often, so is the rest of the class.

But this is just common sense right?  Like stand-up comics, teachers know their “delivery” matters.  This isn’t rocket science.

No. Apparently, it’s brain science.  And it’s true for everyone.  Not just teachers.

According to recent research, a magical little brain cell called the “mirror neuron” actually allows us the empathic power to change the mood of those around us. This cell’s job is to literally mimic or mirror the emotions of others.

If you’ve ever laughed simply because someone else was laughing, if you’ve ever watched a movie and cried or cringed because a character on the screen was sad or terrified, you’ve experienced the handy-work of your mirror neurons.

It’s not science fiction. Mirror neurons are literally responsible for making empathic connections.  Daniel Goleman, author of the books, Emotional Intelligence, and Social Intelligence, calls these connections “primal empathy.”

This truly astounding neural Wi-Fi was identified in the human brain using laser-thin electrodes capable of measuring the firing of a single neuron.

What they found is that mirror neurons will fire both when a person anticipates pain (of a pinprick), as well as when a person watches someone else receive a pinprick.  According to researchers, the lighting up of an electrode monitoring a single mirror neuron is like taking a snapshot of empathy in action.

Wait.  It gets even better.

According to Dr. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, not only do we affect those in close proximity to us, but, “Happiness spreads through social networks like an emotional contagion.”  In other words, you’re mood ripples outward affecting not only those around you, but also people you don’t know and may never meet.

According to Christakis and Fowler, who have been mining data collected from nearly 5,000 people over a period of twenty years, if you’re upbeat, chances of that rubbing off on those near you goes up 25%.  Fascinatingly, when those people leave, there is a 10% chance that people close to them (friends, family, neighbors, etc . . .) will enjoy a hit of positive energy as well. Likewise, a person close to that person has a 5.6% chance of getting a positive charge.

What does this mean?  For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that a teacher comes in contact with (a very conservative) 50 students a day, and each of those students then interacts with just five other people. That’s 250 additional people that may feel that teacher’s influence.  50 (students) plus 250 (people they come in contact with) brings that total to 300.  But it doesn’t stop there. Remember, there is still a 5.6% chance that influence will be felt to a third degree of separation.  So (again, keeping it simple), giving those 250 each five contacts   increases a teacher’s potential reach by 1,250–bringing the grand total to 1,550 people!  EVERY DAY!

Mirror neurons facilitate all of our empathic influence to a 3rd degree of separation.  Research has now proven what Henry Adams knew intuitively–with the potential of reaching thousands of people every day, there’s no way to tell where a teacher’s influence stops.

That’s daunting power, but an even more daunting responsibility.

We all know teaching is more than just a job.  Few realize, however, the influence they really have.

Image Credit: Creative Commons License D. Sharon Pruitt 

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