Mirror neurons, postural echo and tracing

The reciprocal relationships are at the base of our being in the world, and so much so that our organism, over time and with evolution, has developed and codified some programs at a physiological level, able to activate and perform autonomously, not guided by our will.

Every communicative and interaction moment, therefore, is guided by conscious and unconscious behaviors, the union of which conditions the course and the outcome of the communicative act, which in my opinion is a sort of holism, where the result of the act itself transcends the sum of its individual components: verbal, para-verbal and non-verbal.

One of the most important elements, which can be conscious or not, is that of mimicry , that is, to follow our interlocutor in the ways in which it communicates and interacts, being able to decide, as far as the conscious or controllable part is concerned (I will return to this point later), when and how to do it, obviously including the possibility of not doing it at all.

First of all, there is what I like to call "physiological mimicry", involuntary and therefore difficult to control, which exists by virtue of mirror neurons (1) - although their existence is universally recognized even in human beings, what is still the subject of debate is what these are actually responsible (2) - and that, free from any conditioning, we could define ineluctable, for better or for worse.

This involuntary mime - we laugh when our interlocutor laughs and yawns with him - creates a sort of harmony between the interlocutors, which in some sense is neutral by virtue of its involuntary nature, of its automatism: we simply mimic, or tend to do, what the other does, especially when what it does has a clear and perceptible intentional content (or, in other words, when we perceive the intent of our interlocutor's actions and create, in our brain, a mirror representation, both of the intent and of the actions necessary to satisfy it) (5) , in a way that could also seem to be decontextualized with respect to the object of interaction, of communication , but which obviously is not, since everything ultimately responds to the emotional states experienced during such interaction.

It is an involuntary mimic , therefore, that even within its limits, supports and reinforces what is said - but which obviously can also diminish and contradict it - of which it would however be good to be aware of it, at least in part, as a mimic tout court  does not always lead to what we would like to lead to.

Specifically of the non-verbal component, the mimics induced by mirror neurons can be ascribed to the larger one, which is normally referred to as "postural echo" (3), that is to follow our interlocutor in its gestures, evaluating when this is appropriate or not in relation to the objectives that we have set ourselves and those who, likewise, it will have placed itself .

If a postural echo that follows a positive gestures helps to strengthen the harmony between the interlocutors, reinforcing what is said and creating an overall coherence, the problem arises of what to do when our interlocutor implements a gesture or a posture (remember that here we are talking about the non-verbal component and that with the term posture we indicate both gestures and facial expressions) generally associated with a will to close, in a very general sense, and therefore poses a potential obstacle to the continuation of communication or, at least, to its effectiveness.

Such a situation, moreover, quickly leads us to the more general theme of tracing, well known in Neuro Linguistic Programming (4), which extends what the postural echo teaches us and leads us to the theme of approaching the other, of the agree with him and with the experience he is experiencing, of the attempt, in short, to enter with him in empathy.

Furthermore, tracing mainly investigates situations of initial disagreement, distance and estrangement; those situations, that is, where a sort of recovery is necessary, being that aimed, for example, to confirm an affective situation or to positively close a labor negotiation.

The tracing, which also includes the postural echo, being this a sort of gestural tracing, does not offer a univocal and universally accepted solution in case we are faced with a negative situation, that of closure, where the natural countermeasure should be that of to pry such attitude, taking advantage of what the NLP teaches us to do, to bring it back to an active collaboration.

It is precisely on the prying that there is no univocity of views, as this can be achieved:

  1. through the verbal component, simply trying to review, supplement or correct what has just been said;
  2. through an immediate action to take apart the closing posture (typical is the example, in the case of crossed arms, to be helped by our interlocutor, for example, to open a bottle of water, so that he is forced to uncross them);
  3. implementing the tracing, copying what the interlocutor is doing, approaching him, and then leading him to a posture of non-closure or, even better, of total openness, which through its feedback brings similar opening in his emotional state (6).

Wanting to make a clarifying example (at least I hope), think of two hikers, one of which with a pace significantly faster than the other, who are in a situation where the different cadence can potentially create a risk situation, for example the do not reach the goal before nightfall. In such a scenario, the three approaches just described would lead to:

  1. to spur the slowest companion, varying between trying to convince him to accelerate ("come on, if we do not accelerate, we will lose ourselves in the night" ), almost to threaten him if it does not happen ("if you do not hurry up, I come there and I'll make you walk faster by kicking!" );
  2. showing something that attracts him, for example the water bottle or a cigarette, so that he is encouraged to accelerate to reach us;
  3. slowing yourself, joining him and diverting the discussion from the risks associated with being slow, talking of how beautiful is the place where you’re directed, and then gently move from tracing to driving, gradually accelerating until a sustainable pace for him, and of compromise with what you would be able to do.

If it is clear - at least it is what I hope - that point 3 is the one that fully embraces the technique of tracing, whose effectiveness is well known (especially compared to the other two points), what I consider less evident is its universal applicability, because, as I have tried to discuss in this previous article, human interaction and communication are so multifaceted and complex that they always require an approach that takes into account the who and the here and now, aspects that substantially reject any attempt for a priori coding, which at most can be useful as a starting point, as a good practice in cases of total ignorance of the other, but instead must always be specialized when it is not.

Andrea Zinno - De Corporis Voce

 Bibliographic references
  1. State of Mind - Neuroni specchio: storia della scoperta e teorie a confronto – 2017
  2. Neuroscientifically Challenged - Know your brain: Mirror neurons - 2017
  3. Allan Pease e Barbara Pease - “The Definitive Book of Body Language” – 2006
  4. Jerry Richardson – "The Magic of Rapport" - 2000
  5. Dan Siegel - Explains Mirror Neurons in Depth (Video) – 2011
  6. Wikipedia - Facial feedback hypothesis