>> Friday, June 17, 2011
Warning! - You might get fat while reading this.
Do you often get the munchies while watching long hours of TV or playing video games? Do you find yourself craving a snack midmorning after a few hours on your computer? Well that’s because activities like these trick our brains into thinking we are being physically active so much so that they’ve been proven to cause fluctuation in our blood sugar and hunger hormone levels. They even agitate our appetite for sweet treats such as cookies and chocolate cake.
So are you getting hungry yet? If not, allow me to introduce you to mirror neurons. About twenty years ago in Italy, a group of scientists were doing an experiment with monkeys to learn how the brain controls our actions and discovered that certain neurons in the monkey’s brain would fire up when the monkey would grasp or manipulate a peanut. They then discovered (by accident) that those same neurons would also fire up when the monkey saw an other monkey grasp or manipulate the peanut i.e. as far as the brain is concerned, seeing can be as good as doing. A number of other experiments have shown that humans have a similar system. We call such neurons mirror neurons. These bad boys can explain why our brains think we’ve worked off many calories requiring replacement when we watch TV, movies, sport, surfing the web etc.
But mirror neurons do a lot more than just trick our brains and cause us to overeat. They affect our day to day lives more than you may realize. They make us empathetic by helping us feel other individuals’ actions, sensations, and emotions as if we were in their shoes. They help us learn by seeing instead of actually having to try something ourselves. For instance, if one of your friends tries a glass of milk and makes a repugnant face, chances are you are not going to make the same mistake. You would probably get grossed out just by imagining the sour taste of curdled milk.
These shared circuits can also explain our buying behavior, and the power that desirable experiences have in advertising campaigns. When consumers see another person using a product or a brand, they share the experience of the person they are watching. Men started smoking cigarettes just by seeing a rugged cowboy in nature enjoying a cigarette (Marlboro Man). The Snuggie was able to net over $100MM just by showing an entire family cozy and happy watching TV while dressed in ridiculous oversized blankets with sleeves. It’s crazy what vicarious thrills we get from seeing others enjoying a product, or a brand.
Another manifestation of this ‘to see is to do’ phenomenon is the application of computer games to improve health related behaviors; for example race car games promoting seat belt protection and safe driving by penalizing the racers if they don’t wear their seat belts. And there are other emerging games that aim to control tobacco use, improve nutritional habits, and even help prevent certain diseases such as HIV.
So, although our mirror neurons have added to our love handles, it’s still inspiring to know that there is something inside each of us that connects us to each other, and causes us to identify with each other, care about each other, learn from each other, and can even help prevent diseases.