Research by neurologists in UCLA proved that when we watch other people engaged in action, neurons associated with the muscle group used by the active party will begin to fire in our own body. The observer’s neurons “mirror” what is observed in others.

I remember watching The Pianist at a crowded theatre in 2002. At the end of the film, Wladyslaw Szpilman portrayed by Adrien Brody, played Chopin’s Grande Polonaise. When the camera closed in tight for an extended shot of his hands moving over the piano keyboard, the same neuron groups firing in the pianist were likewise activated in the theatre patrons. At the end of the film, the audience remained seated and staring at the screen in silence, perhaps emotionally exhausted like me. Throughout the film as we’d witnessed actors’ sorrowful looks or weeping on screen, the same neuron groups associated with these facial expressions were also activated in us. What’s more, our emotional neurons connected to those feelings also spark. Visual and auditory cues kickstart these empathetic neurons.

Our physical and emotional states are bound to each other. This highly evolved empathy response at the cellular level connects us to human beings. We’re not as individual as we might think.

The ability of auditory stimuli to shape our emotions doesn’t end at the movie theatre. Consider the iconic NBC Nightly News theme music was written by John Williams—the same Hollywood composer of Star Wars and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial renown. In reference to Williams’ piece, former NBC executive Tom Wolzien said, “Anything like that seeps into the consciousness.”

Most of us know the old expression, we are what we eat. Over a decade ago, I awakened to how much we are affected by what we consume beyond food. I stopped watching the morning news with coffee before heading off to work. Even the plucky theme music triggered a negative state of mind. I’d here it and, because of conditioning, understood what would come next—the faces of suffering, grief, worry; a newscaster’s solemn expression; details of calamity. All that neuron mirroring brought me low before I’d left the house.

On the podcast Earn Your Happy, host Lori Harder prepares for the day she wants to have tomorrow by monitoring what her mind consumes the night before. She started this practice after connecting scary movies to a lack of focus the next day. It’s got me reflecting on my own frame of mind, the correlations between what I’m forcing my neurons to mirror and my general mood. Garbage in, garbage out as a friend once told me. 

At a time when it’s so easy for our hearts and spirits to flounder, it’s prudent to be mindful of what visual and auditory input we are binging on. Is it nourishing or diminishing?

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 The Last Hoffman  is a poignant family drama featuring a multilayered cast of tightly woven characters in a fractured northern community. It will restore your belief in second chances.

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