As I stated in my post a few weeks ago (Take it Down a Notch), I mentioned that I was off to coffee with my buddy Kevin Leahy. A passionate, high notch man himself, we had a great discussion around the brain and what you can actually do to perceive and respond to another person’s level. As I said, “Meet them where they are.” Kevin, kindly offers this insight today. Thanks Kevin. Love this brain stuff. Safe Travels!
Linda, you asked: Where it is in our brains that we assess the states of mind of others?
Great question! Here are some thoughts. Our brains assess what others are thinking and feeling in several ways, including by paying attention to visual, auditory, and other cues.
What we see gets sent quickly to an area in the back-middle of our brains that keeps patterns about what we know of others (it is the integrative cortex). We match what we see with past patterns of what we know about people. Are the shoulders slumped? Does the face look strained? Are they looking down or away from us? Our brains give us a super fast answer that gets sent back to the dispatch area (called the thalamus) for further processing and also to the front of the brain (our executive function area). The front is where we make conscious assessments of what is happening. This effort can take some time so we benefit from patience as our brain figures out as much as it can without our asking specific questions.
The hearing system can be more sensitive than our vision. It is closer and more connected to the middle of the brain, which is the area where we generate our emotions. We can listen to the person’s tone of voice (deep, high, or thin and nervous, etc.); speed; volume; and any non-verbal utterances (sighs, harrumphs, and the like). We process those sounds and compare them with existing patterns to understand what’s going on.
We can then ask ourselves: should we adjust to the other person’s mood; mirror his or her body language; or simply wait patiently with little verbal and non-verbal communication either way until the other person lets us know how he or she feels, or what’s on his or her mind.
We have far more systems that help us decipher others’ states of mind than we realize. For starters, there are special cells in the back parts of the front brain areas called mirror neurons that “mirror” other people without our consciously knowing it. If his shoulders are slumped, our mirror neurons might cause our shoulders to slump too. Because body positions are linked to mental states we can pay attention to what our own bodies do to get a sense of what the other person might be thinking or feeling.
We can “smell” situations and “feel” them too by sensing energy fluctuations. We call these other systems intuition. It pays to know about these other systems and rely on the front-most part of our brains to help us sort them out. There are special ways to train for this that help increase our awareness including meditation, mental rehearsal, and body language management.
Aside from our brains’ default checks and balances, we have the luxury of asking questions. The first and best question to ask is: “Is this a good time to talk?” After obtaining initial permission to speak we do well to continue to ask for permission.
For example, if we sense something is wrong we can propose: “I may have this wrong… but did something happen that has you feeling a little off?” Or of the person is potentially in a re-energizing place, we can ask: “I have a big topic to talk about, shall we just catch up now or go ahead and talk about it?”
These additional levels of permission help us confirm where the other person’s state of mind and body are. We deserve to listen very carefully to the answers and consider “how” they are answered (what body language and tone are involved, for example).
Working with the brain
The key to all of this is to know that our brains are always looking to do the right thing. In the process they often pick up only part of the story and start filling in the gaps in ways that may not help our relationships. On their own, in other words, our brains can make significant social mistakes. Therefore, we benefit most from using our conscious ability to slow things down and help our brains make the right assessments. That way, we make the right choices about how much energy, information, and emotion to offer others.
Thanks for the opportunity to comment about the brain and social interactions.