Mirror Neurons: A Little bit me, a little bit you

I am a bit of a neuroscience geek.  It goes way back to graduate school at Thomas Jefferson University in occupational therapy.  As a teaching assistant, I helped out in the neuro lab and got to handle and assist students with cadaver brains.  I can still smell the formaldehyde and feel the cool marble of the lab tables.  Full brains, cross sectioned brains, diseased brains and healthy brains.  Pretty cool stuff.  But what does it have to do with forming our first impressions?  Making friends?  Forming stereotypes?  Plenty.

Do you find yourself smiling when someone else smiles?  Gawking at a couple canoodling in a corner booth at a restaurant?  Ta-da!! You are using your mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons came on to the scene of neuroscience in about 2006.  An Italian researcher noticed something in the brains of monkeys.  A monkey reaches for a peanut. Bing!  Specialized motor neurons fire.  A monkey watches a researcher reach for a peanut.  Bing!  The same specialized motor neurons fire in the monkey’s brain, even though he didn’t move a muscle.  We have just witnessed the underpinnings of social interactions, culture, consciousness, representation of thought and empathy.

As if that’s not mind-bending enough, researchers have also found that the better we are at interpreting facial expressions, the more active our mirror neurons.  Get it?  When you are looking at someone and taking what their face is telling you, you are feeling what they feel.  You are empathizing.

In my work, I see lots of kids with autism and other disorders characterized by poor social interactions.  These kids barely look at you, and when they do it is fleeting.  This makes it incredibly difficult for them to connect to you on a deeper level.  You can use your mirror neurons to establish what it is they are feeling, but a person with autism likely has less active mirror neurons than you do.  It’s not that they aren’t interested in you, they just have a hard time experiencing you.

When you think about it, it explains so much of how we react to situations we encounter.  Why it is we can’t turn away.  Our brains are trying to learn, discover and protect.  Our brains like to categorize and contain.  When we look at an accident on the side of the road, our brains want to know how it happened so we can avoid doing the same.  When we watch sports, particularly if we have played that sport in the past with people who look like the ones we are watching, it’s like virtual reality for our brains.  As a cyclist, I love watching the Tour De France.  Those hills, the danger, the cheering fans, those muscled legs fighting for a chance at the podium:  that’s a thrill for me because I have experienced the pains and joys of cycling, albeit at a much lower level.

Look, we are intensely, unapologetically social creatures.  Isn’t it fascinating to know that there are parts of your brain whose only job is to live in another person’s experience?  That means that when we meet someone new, we take in how they look, their gestures (my friend Marci couldn’t believe when she met my mom, saying our mannerisms were exactly the same:  now I know why) and their language.  Then we try and make it our own.  It’s the human way of creating culture, and in the case of suburbo-types, friendships.  Something in that first interchange lays the groundwork for a relationship.  Was the way I looked at you like the way another person you love has looked at you before?  Did I laugh in a way that somehow makes sense to you?  Are we good at the same games?  Are we connecting on not just a social but a neurochemical level?   It doesn’t really matter.  As humans, it just feels good.

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