I’m not a brain scientist, but I’ve been thinking about mirror neurons after seeing a wonderful video on them. These specialized brain cells help us relate to our surroundings and other people. Mirror cells build empathy and connection. They are activated every time we see or hear.

The video suggested that mirror neurons function even more profoundly when we witness an emotion or activity that we ourselves have experienced. This explains why my husband can feel intensely involved when simply watching a football game and I am unmoved. This also explains why emotional literacy is so vital in helping us develop empathy. Our mirror neurons link our past emotional memories and compare them to what we witness in another. We can then have a sense of how the other person feels-i.e. we can feel empathy.

I recently met a manager who was supervising a team of eight women. “Tom’s” struggle to relate to his team compelled him to attend one of my EI seminars. Tom confessed that he wasn’t comfortable expressing emotions. He also acknowledged that the women on his team seemed like an alien species. If Tom isn’t emotionally literate, does this mean that his mirror neurons aren’t able to help him relate to the “emotional” women at work?

Learning about brain structure continues to help me understand how emotional intelligence offers practical assistance in daily life. In this case, I see the benefit of constantly developing our awareness of our own emotional states. For Tom, recognizing his own fears and angers could help his mirror neurons fulfill their function, helping Tom empathize with his team.