Unconscious communication

We communicate a lot with our bodies, through our gestures and facial expressions, although often without realising it. When we make a gesture it activates particular brain regions but, surprisingly, this also activates some of the same regions in the brain of someone who is watching us (Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2004; Filimon et al., 2007).

The so-called Mirror Neuron System is thought to help learning through imitation and may also help transmit attitudes and emotional responses. Observing an emotion in someone else (e.g. through their expression) activates the brain mechanisms involved with experiencing that emotion ourselves. In other words, when we see someone else express an emotion, our own brains activate the same regions involved with experiencing that emotion (Gallese, 2003; Gallese et al., 2007). The image below shows that there is an overlap (white) in the brain regions activated when experiencing disgust (red) or when observing someone else feeling disgusted (blue).

fMRI sagittal section (a plane that splits the front of the face from top to bottom) showing overlapping areas of increased activity)

The unconscious workings of our brains can, therefore, help explain how easily negative emotions, such as anxiety about mathematics, can be transmitted from teacher to student (Beilock et al., 2010), and how positive teacher attitudes can become linked to higher student achievement (Ker, 2016). More positively, the mirror neuron system may also unconsciously help the teacher transmit concepts, confidence and enthusiasm.

Image credit

Image from Neuron, 40, Wicker, B. et al., Both of us disgusted in my insula: the common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust, p.655-664, Figure 3. Illustration of the overlap. Copyright (2003). Reproduced with permission from Elsevier.

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The Science of Learning

National STEM Learning Centre