Saturday, October 6, 2012

Liking someone affects brain processes

Our brain has the capacity to mimic things we see, which speeds up various learning processes. An example is watching someone walk: while that happens, the corresponding brain patterns are activated in your brain as well, creating a pattern of activation that would also occur if you yourself would be walking. This process of copying, facilitated by so-called mirror neurons, has been well-studied and is important for a variety of mammals, including us human beings. Surprisingly, it appears that whether you like someone affects the brain processes that govern this mimicking behaviour.

Scientists from the University of Southern California studied whether feelings towards a person affect the mirror neurons. They showed that the perception of someone walking is different when you like or dislike someone. For example: disliking someone causes a perceived lower walking speed. Social factors were not found to be very important when watching people do other things. In addition, no difference in brain patterns were found when looking at videos of likeable versus dislikeable people.

In order to investigate what happens when people either like or dislike someone, the scientists set up an experiment with male Jews that volunteered to be part of the study. They were made to look at two distinct personalities: either a neo-Nazi or a broad-minded an generally likeable person. Needless to say, the neo-Nazi personality was found to be less agreeable by the participants.

The study is an interesting example of how emotions affect our perception. Mirror neurons and copying behaviour are important mechanisms in learning and memory, even though they function unconsciously. Perhaps future studies will elucidate more factors that affect our perception.
A baby monkey imitating a facial expression.

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