How Will You Show Up?


e all know that person who bounces into the room and just lights it up with positive energy. Maybe you also know that person who always seems to be in a bad mood. Did you ever notice that being around those types of people affects your own mood? There is a wealth of neuroscience that explains that as emotional contagion and it happens without even thinking about it.

And it’s not just emotions that we can catch and spread. We mimic behaviors too. Babies cry when they hear other babies cry. There is a reason that television sitcoms use laugh tracks. We are 30% more likely to laugh when we hear others laugh.  In fact, just hearing different emotional sounds such as cries, screams, or laughter triggers a reaction in the premotor region of the brain that prepares the listener’s facial muscles to respond accordingly.

Neuroscientists attribute this to mirror neurons – a subset of brain cells that fire when we perform an action as well as when we see others perform that action. More recent research has explored mirror neurons as the psychological mechanism that enables us to feel empathy and develop emotional intelligence.

Because we are wired to connect with others and emotions are contagious through mirror neurons, we change others with a powerful subconscious force.  What happens within us happens between us. We don’t just co-exist; we connect with each other from the inside out.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. I absolutely love this one, Melissa! We are energy-as much as we can take personal responsibility for our Pause-our internal world of peace, joy, love, presence-this ripples out to others. What inspiration to take time for internal clean up in our boats (our inner worlds) so we can bring our true selves to life, to interactions with others, be the energy of exuberance that lifts other people’s hearts-to be human and humane with one another. Thank you so much for the wisdom you bring to all of us!

    • I love how you put it, Laura: “…take time for internal clean up in our boats (our inner worlds) so we can bring our true selves to life, to interactions with others, be the energy of exuberance that lifts other people’s hearts-to be human and humane with one another.”
      Thank you for being you!

  2. I was ignorant at to the why’s, where’s and the wherefores’ of the automatic reactions to situations we find ourselves in.NOW I understand, thank you Melissa for making this clearer.

    Reminds me of a terrible situation I found myself in – I had just retrieved the body of a dead child from under the rubble of their simple house – a result of the earthquake. I was devastated and was shamelessly crying as I went to the makeshift tent, her mother, who was also badly battered, screaming on the top of her lungs when she saw me. I simply could not understand how I could have bawled so audibly – we hugged, and I gave her- the mortal remains of her child. I had to return to the debris and continue my work, visible shattered and yet perplexed as to how emotional I had become.

    A few hours later, just when the sun had set, I was overjoyed to see another child, bruised and with a visibly broken arm – but alive – the feeling of relief and joy cannot be explained. Taking this child to his parents in the “waiting tent” – screams of joy by all present echoed the tent. I too shouted with joy and danced with the.

    I could not fathom what had happened – just a short time ago, I was audible bawling my eyes out, and now, I was rejoicing and dancing. This emotional roller coaster was incomprehensible, yet I was blessed in both occasions.

    Was it empathy in action? Was it an automatic response to human emotion?

    I don’t know, but I had truly lived my moments.

    • Wow… what an experience that must have been, Jonathan! This is a great example of emotional contagion which happens because we can empathize with others’ emotional states. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

    • Thank you Melissa. I have learned to appreciate every single moment that is entrusted to me and I am blessed to have the opportunity to make a very small difference in peoples lives.

  3. “We don’t just co-exist; We share the human connection.” Thank you thank you thank you, Melissa, for always providing the data/research to backup that we are all in this together, that we affect each other whether we like it or not, and that the energy we choose to bring to an interaction matters.

    • I am so glad you found value in this one, Mary. That thought (We don’t just co-exist; we share a human connection.) has stuck with me, too. It one of those things that I try to remember when I’m having a good (or bad) day. We can share the good stuff or we can share the not-so-good stuff. It’s our choice!

  4. Very interesting Melissa. I’ve often wondered if we can train our brains to fight any negativity. I think of Mother Theresa. She worked around impoverished people (not to imply they were negative) but no doubt had to maintain a positive outlook. I also don’t find myself succumbing to negativity when my clients are overwhelmed – especially with shame. I can only infer that helping them (and seeing their successes) provides the stimuli I need to remain positive as well.

    • Interesting that you would use Mother Theresa as an example of being around those with a negative outlook. As you mention, that is an opportunity to help them see and enjoy the positives. Thanks for sharing this insight, John. I had not thought of that before!

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts, Sherry! I’m glad you found this one to be of value!

  5. Melissa, so true! Emotional catagion is a real thing and so is mimicking behavior. One of the strangest ways the mimicking behavior seems to be manifesting over the past few years with the “Pull out your phone and text contagion”! Holy Yikes!!!

    I don’t know if I am infectious or contagious and I try to be really mindful of how I show up because while it’s wonderful to have contagious positives, having contagious negatives not only effects others and shows a lack of respect for them, it also shows a lack of self respect in that we are showing we don’t respect oursleves enough to care how we are being.

    Thanks as always for helping me continue my bias toward you being #thebestneurosciencegeekever

    • I like to think that in many cases, as in this one, knowledge is power. When we know that our emotions are contagious, that knowledge gives us more control over our intentions to others.
      #thebestneurosciencegeekever? I’ll take that! Thank you, Shelley!

    • Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful feedback, Laura! I’m thrilled you find value in my work.