Opposed to storing data in a computer, our learning is the accumulation of experience, which increasingly anchors through the linking of neurons in the brain in consequence of similar insights. The more we know, the easier it becomes to learn something new. The thrilling question is how the activation of the first neurons starts, as long as there are no connection points yet. Perhaps these are the mirror neurons that make the first storing possible, even if there is no activation so far.
The mirror neurons provide the reflexes that a baby has shortly after birth. If you take a baby into your arms minutes after birth and stick your tongue out, something amazing happens: the baby also sticks its tongue out. This capability could be the genetic prerequisite for our learning. What does that mean for us?
- We can learn something completely new
Whoever has learned a completely different language knows the effect. For people accustomed to letters, the learning of character-based calligraphy, such as Chinese or Japanese, becomes an additional hurdle – the „illegible“ signs, whose pronunciation cannot be derived from the writing, but must be learned. However, after the foundation has been created in the interconnection of the neurons through regular imitation and practice, it becomes steadily easier to expand the network of neurons with additional signs.
The same applies to all other areas of life. As soon as we are to adopt a new way of working, it is difficult that we break away from the old patterns and accept and understand the new. Those affected have to reconnect their existing networks. In these cases, you need examples that learners can imitate. Stories or role-plays that are told that are presented help – or articles, books, podcasts, or videos. These start impulses make it easier to learn for those affected.
- Joint learning is more productive
The food for the mirror neurons is found in the personal environment. It needs a source to which one can orientate oneself and which one can imitate. In primary school, students used to learn how to paint by standing around the teacher and watching him paint a tree full of white flowers with opaque white. That way the mirror neurons were supplied with behavior patterns which were then further strengthened during painting yourself. In addition one had the possibility to look at further tricks from the neighbors.
In business such learning situations are created through exercises in which the participants solve tasks in a team. This kind of dynamic learning in Business Exercises builds on the pre-existing experience of the participants and exploits the opportunity to learn from each other.
- Prohibition on thinking is counterproductive.
Since it is a largely subconscious activity to learn, all kinds of thought restrictions are detrimental to progress. There must be no prohibitions on thinking, criticism, evaluations or the like while learning. Quite the contrary. The participants should be encouraged to follow their intuitions, to toy around thoughts of others and to be able to contribute the unthinkable, the impossible and the absurd, because this uses the existing linkages in the brain of the participants, which are to be broadened. In this way the attendees create something bigger than they would have achieved on their own.
All it takes are rules that allow knowledge, experience and opinions – e.g. like the rules in brainstorming or design thinking.
- Allow spontaneity
If the baby sticks out its tongue after birth when it sees someone sticking out its tongue, it is not a conscious activity of the baby but the appearance of a congenital reflex. As adults, we’ve gotten used to living with restrictions. This means that we are no longer spontaneous – because we have learned to avoid criticism and reprimands. If you wish to make great progress, you should allow the natural impulses of those present, which are produced by the mirror neurons.
In everyday life, teams limit themselves by slowing down or confirming each other, by following the opinion of the majority and by holding back their ideas for fear of bad feedback. For this reason, the participants of an event should be encouraged to communicate openly. In addition, anonymous techniques, such as written statements on meta plan cards that are collected and then discussed, can lower the hurdle for participants.
- But … watch out for cognitive biases
Working mirror neurons are not only an advantage. They also cause automatisms to creep into our daily decisions – the so-called biases. For example, groups tend to make worse decisions, because they adapt to opinions of the group although they know better. Or the halo effect, where you derive your expectations from familiar characteristics of a person, although these inferences can be misleading. Mirror neurons work, even if it is not always advantageous.
In practice, this requires sensitive listening into the situation. With targeted disturbances, for example by throwing an antithesis into the room, it is possible to reduce such group effects.
Bottom line: We learn best in a group. Mirror neurons help us to adapt subconsciously to people, who are in a similar situation around us. This happens in meetings, workshops and other events. It allows us to overcome the initial difficulties that arise when you are exposed to something new that you cannot relate to your experience yet. Our mirror neurons turn team learning into a highway of change. There must be no restrictions on thinking and spontaneous ideas that are not yet common property should be encouraged and valued and not suppressed with killer phrases. However, it is a good idea to keep an eye on the unwanted biases that occur. Our mirror neurons should be used for far-reaching innovations, because they enable an auto start for change.