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Mirror neurons and the Khaya effect

Timothy Maurice Webster is the author of three brand leadership books and columnist who consults & speaks at the intersection of three key leadership pillars; Values formation, Style Manifestation and Brand Position. Timothy’s background in branding, design and psychology is inspired by his graduate studies at the Image Institute and his undergraduate work at Brookstone College in the United States.

If you think it’s time we moved past discussing race at every turn, you should be pleased that Khaya Mthethwa was the first black winner of Idols. That’s because Khaya’s win will have a positive effect on young black aspiring musicians – and, before you hurl tomatoes at me for stating the obvious, take a step back. There’s actual, scientific evidence, and it’s found in the so-called “mirror neurons”.

Neurosociology is the study of how the brain and body affect social systems and, ultimately, society. This field of study is abuzz in the social sciences. The latest brain scanning technology allows researchers an intimate look into the brain’s movements and which social influences make it tick. Since the Age of Enlightenment (roughly, from the 1600’s to 1800’s) thinkers made educated guesses as to how our brains made associations between values, images and people; but now we can physically measure and monitor the activity and speak confidently about why and how the brain engages when a child watches an Idol take the stage.  

In recent years, scientists have discovered that those tiny communication cells called neurons have a subset with mirroring capacity. In the 1980s; at the University of Parma, Italy; Italian neurophysiologists Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese discovered mirror neurons. Essentially, the role of these social cells is to look around, observe people and immerse us into the experience in order to understand how to manoeuvre in a social context. 

Heres the kicker: these neurons become particularly active when the person we are observing looks like us. Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence explains it as follows: Mirror neurons are a kind of ‘neural wi-fi’ that monitors what is happening in other people. This system tracks their emotions, what movements they’re making, what they intend and it activates, in our brains, precisely the same brain areas that are active in the other person. 

Beyond people mirroring, these neurons help you build a relationship with objects and places. The brain has evolved in such a way that when you give a value context, an image will appear. Example: think IT Innovation in California, and  Apple/ Google/ Facebook/ Twitter pops up. Another example: imagine in your mind the face of integrity in the banking boardroom and (well, before the banking crisis) youd probably have got a bunch of white males. Bringing it back home, prior to Khaya’s win, when you thought of a South African Idol, you wouldn’t have thought of a black person.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Thinking Fast and Slow, offers insight into how the brain prioritises associations with people/objects by breaking the thinking brain into two regions, namely System 1 and System 2.  

System 1 creates a framework for society to ensure we’re able to navigate basic scenarios like walking on a empty side walk, computing basic addition like 1+1 and knowing which emotion is associated with a smile. Even if you want to turn off System 1, you can’t. 

System 2 is the slower region, where concentration is housed. If I ask you to multiply 33 X 47, System 1 asks System 2 to step in. If you see Charlize Theron at a press conference announcing she’s becoming President Zuma’s 5th Wife, you’ll require System 2 to come to terms, because your System 1 doesn’t have an existing frame for this image.

After seven seasons of Idols, South Africa was missing a frame for a black winner. More importantly, in a society where values such as innovation, excellence and Idols winners were previously framed in a white context, the mirror neurons of little black kids needed role models such as Khaya to activate their mirror for success.   

Mirror neurons work aggressively to construct the System 1 framework. Researchers have proven that the emotional regions of the brain (Amygdala) are aggravated more when we see images outside of our race, causing increased activity. When images of the same race are flashed in front of you, the brain remains settled. This mirroring effect is precisely why the majority of people feel so comfortable with people who look like them.

Unfortunately for issues of fairness and general harmony, whichever race best controls how their values are projected in the dominant media has the better chance of producing offspring who benefit from this unconscious neural instinct. When young white South Africans see Charlize Theron win an Oscar, or see James Bond getting the hot girl and saving lives, they enjoy what I term unconscious mirror affirmation.  

Khaya has, without realising the full significance, become a role model for young black South Africans in the same way Bill Cosby did for Black Americans in the 1980s interestingly, right around the time mirror neurons where discovered. Bill Cosby propped up a mirror for young black men, offering them an example of consistent and disciplined fatherhood that was largely missing from many black communities. While I was blessed to have both my mother and father in my home, they were both factory workers and Mr Cosby spoke to my mirror, showing me how a professional father looked and lived.

Millions of young black South Africans watching Khaya have been affected unknowingly by his ability to wave a mirror filled with talent, humility and spiritual conviction that just so happened to be wrapped in black skin. Khaya’s opponent in the finale, Melissa Allison, is certainly talented, but she already had a mirror for her potential.  

Congrats to Khaya, then: your win sits in the subconscious of millions, and helps to build a path to excellence for them. 

Every society should achieve a balance of healthy mirrors from which all children can benefit. The Bill Cosbys and Khayas of the world are needed desperately to offset the negative images.  

President Obama had a similar effect, but I believe he only got there thanks to Cosby’s mirror. DM


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