The Contagious Power of Thinking

Posted by David R Hamilton
10 May, 2011

I like to end some of my public talks by telling a few stories of kindness. From time to time, people tell me that a story I told touched them in some way and encouraged them to do something nice for someone.It was this kind of thing that inspired me to research the subject of contagious thinking. I wondered if kindness could be so contagious that a single act could change many lives.I like to think of it like dropping a pebble in a pond. A lily pad will lift at the other side. It has no idea why it lifted, but it did because you dropped a pebble into the pond. To use this as a metaphor, think of an act of kindness like dropping a pebble in a pond. It can raise the spirits of people far from you because we live in an interconnected world where information travels fast.

But it’s more than just our actions that are contagious. One of the first things I learned on the subject of contagion was that emotions are contagious. Have you ever felt happy around a happy person?

The contagion effect

Research shows is that this has less to do with us analysing their behaviour and feeling happy or sad because of what they are saying than we would think. On the whole, much of the contagion effect is an automatic thing, where our brain copies their facial expressions and actually reproduces their emotional state.

It works through a network of interconnected cells in the brain known as mirror neurons. These cells mirror a happy (or a depressed) person’s facial expressions, and the longer we spend around them, the more our own facial expressions begin to mirror theirs. And the mirror neuron system contains emotional areas so we actually end up feeling the same emotions too. In this way, happiness is contagious and literally spread from person to person, right through a social network.

In a very real way, happiness can actually spread throughout a group like the waft of a pleasantly scented candle and much research has now shown that a single individual can raise the spirits of a great many.

Depression is also contagious and research at Harvard shows that it can travel throughout a social network too. The research on the contagiousness of happiness and depression also highlighted something extremely important – that each of us is far more connected to, and interdependent upon, each other than we have previously thought.

As counter-intuitive as it might sound to some, because we live in richly interconnected social networks, the research showed that the mental and emotional health of even the happiest person is partly dependent upon that of the most depressed. The health of the entire network is a little like the health of a single organism. If one part is sick, the whole network suffers a little.

And therefore we must strive to help each other because we are not in this world alone. I love the way Martin Luther King puts it. In his Nobel lecture at the University of Oslo in 1964, he said,

‘In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.’

The effects of violent games
Asides from catching moods from each other, one of the areas of concern that research into contagion is flagging up is the potential for contagion effects through violent media, and in particular the effects on children and teenagers of playing violent video games. Research now clearly shows, for instance, that playing violent video games dampens compassion and reduces the tendency for kind behaviour.

This was shown in a study of 320 students who had to either play a violent or non-violent video game for twenty minutes. After each person finished, the researchers staged a fake fight outside the room, where one person was clearly hurt and lying on the ground. The point of the experiment was to measure if the type of game they played had any bearing on how long it took them to go out and help the person up off the ground.

It turned out that it did. Those who played the non-violent games took, on average, 16.2 seconds to help but, incredibly, the students who played the violent games averaged 1 minute 13.3 seconds – four and a half times longer.

The implications of this are mind-boggling. The students literally ‘caught’ aggression from the game characters, which partly overruled their natural tendency for compassion. We are continually absorbing much more from our environment and from each other than we have previously imagined.

One single act of kindness
So what if we could create environments where kindness could flourish? That’s the kind of thing that gives me hope. Just about everything is contagious, so we only need to ask ourselves, what are the sorts of things we want to spread?

The effects of one single act of kindness can travel a long way. I’m inspired by the published report of the ‘domino effect’ of kidney donations after a single, anonymous, altruistic donor donated a kidney in the hope that it would give life to someone in need.

It set off a chain of events that united many families together in an everlasting bond. The recipient of the kidney was a woman in Phoenix, Arizona, whose husband had been a willing donor but wasn’t a match. But a match was found for his kidney in Toledo, Ohio, so he donated his kidney to a woman there, whose mother had wanted to donate her kidney but wasn’t a match, so she then donated her kidney to someone else, in a pay-it-forward, domino-effect style. And that recipient’s partner then donated their kidney to another person. The actual ‘donor chain’, the longest ever recorded from a single altruistic donor, eventually stretched to ten donations from the single kind act by the original donor.

It’s these kinds of things that we have to take comfort from – demonstrations of the goodness of the human spirit. And it is contagious.

In this interconnected world we live in, just about everything is contagious. We just need to choose what to spread.

Wouldn’t it be great for our world if we took this knowledge and purposefully infected others with positive virtues, behaviours and attitudes of mind that can make the world a better place?

I think it would make a real difference.

Love, David
© 2011 David R Hamilton PhD



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