Mirroring behavior is the bottom of my empathy pyramid, and where we all likely got our connections started, over 450 million years ago. One can argue about the beginning of coordinated behavior, but it likely appeared in the late Cambrian or Ordovician Periods, with fish finding protection in their own species by keying off specific motions of other fish — schooling for protection. I’m personally betting on the vertebrates, with their enclosed nervous system, as the originator of our own empathy gateway.
We practice basic mirroring behavior all the time. I yawn, you yawn. But because the brain is an emergent, evolutionary organ, the roots of mirroring behavior have spread their neural pathways throughout the whole brain. I call this phenomenon emergent differentiation, in that this successful behavior, as we evolved, daisy-chained in higher and higher levels of functionality.
Anyone who’s ever taken a karate class has experienced this. You watch your sensei, you follow his or her motions. You repeat. It seems easy, until the sensei leaves the room. Then, all of the sudden, it’s not so easy. As an engineering student, I can remember watching the professor solve a thermodynamics problem. I was sure I knew how to do it, until I got home and had to complete the problem set. Then what I believed I had learned, I obviously hadn’t.
Understanding mirroring behavior is key in also understanding the integral/external connection of self-creation. Mirroring behavior, at the bottom, is “we do what we see.” Higher forms of empathy are needed in order to get to the point of “we do what we ought/think/believe” without the example in front of us.
Mirroring behavior is at the core of our developmental selves as well. Most of us have played peek-a-boo with a baby. The TV series, the Teletubbies, was in large part constructed on the mirroring developmental stage. Dipsy or Po would do something (like hide their face, which could be mimicked by a child) and then develop consequentiality by repeating the same action again. The infant, able to mimic and repeat, would develop the beginning of a sense of time.
Mirroring can be trans-species. In The Age of Empathy, de Waal documents simple mirroring between human researchers and rhesus monkeys. He opens his mouth, the baby monkey opens its mouth. Obviously, the more intelligent the species, the larger the possibilities are expanded. Monkey see, monkey do.
In mathematical terms, which will become more important in this blog, mirroring behavior is what I call the simplest of a meta-linear behavior. For those familiar with systems theory, a linear system is one where given an input (like pushing on a swing) we can expect to see an output (the swing responds by, well, swinging back and forth) that matches the input, except in amplitude (our push is small, but the swing motion is large) and delay, or phase lag (it takes a second for the swing to respond.) As the simplest kind of meta-linear behavior, I yawn, and a second later, you yawn. Your yawning is dependent on my yawning — you wouldn’t be yawning if you hadn’t seen me do it — and is a couple of seconds delayed.
What’s the purpose in that understanding? Mirroring behavior does deliver the coherence that empathy promises. But it is on short time scales (you have to be watching) and without much magnification (you’re not going to invent a new way of yawning.) And once you get done yawning, that’s the end of that!
Takeaways: Mirroring is the root of our coordinated behavior. Originating in the basal ganglia, it has spread throughout the brain. It is one of the first components of empathy that we see in small children.
Further Reading: This is an interesting quick piece expanding on some of the themes above:
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