Conor at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, February 2017
One of the most cognitively challenging concepts in understanding empathy is understanding that empathy is really about connection, and connection between two humans (let’s let the sentient being beast lie for now) isn’t some magic hocus-pocus deal. It’s real, and deeply embedded across our entire nervous system. Humans are biologically wired together through the distributed network of neural pathways in their own bodies — consult Stephen Porges’ work on his Polyvagal Theory for more details. The short version is we’ve got a bunch of nervous pathways across our body, mostly in our stomach and intestines, that wire up to our face so that other humans can look at the various expressions and take a mental stat-check on any other human with amazing accuracy. Handy, of course, when hunting mammoths and you want to check on the health of your fellow spear-wielder.
But it’s more complex than that. Lots of research on mirror neurons in the last twenty years have shed light on just how instantaneous empathy, especially mirroring behavior, at the bottom of our empathy pyramid, is. The answer? Pretty instantaneous.
Here’s the interesting thing. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering why there is this resistance to the idea of humans as connected beings. I get the individuality of things like American culture, as well as the lower v-Meme predilection toward creating fragmented social structures, which basically imply that real connections between people can’t exist. The ‘Notorious in Empathy Circles’ Paul Bloom, and his recent book, Against Empathy, are in this camp. But reading through some of the literature before writing this post, there’s another mental model out there that’s pretty powerful. And that’s mind reading.
Mind reading is a subset of performance art, otherwise known as Mentalism, which has been a performance art for just about forever. I don’t want to get sidetracked here, but a good mentalist likely uses a fair amount of Conscious Empathy in their performance, reading cues that help the audience believe that they can actually read minds. There are some honest ones out there — the one I remember most from my childhood was The Amazing Kreskin. You can check out his Wikipedia post for more details.
But back to Mirror Neurons. Mirror neurons are, interestingly enough, scattered across the brain, and research has shown that there’s a 1:1 correspondence between parts of the brain embedded with mirror neurons of the ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’ lighting up at the same time. How can we understand this as connection? Here’s the direct analogy — a fiber optic send/receive unit, otherwise known as a transceiver. These are the things that run the internet, folks — we just happen to have a more sophisticated version in our brains that multiplexes tons of different frequencies through our own head and sends far more information per second the possible with a single, blinking laser.
And they give a little more transparent understanding how humans, with complex light sensors, otherwise known as ‘eyes’ hooked to our visual cortex, would connect and pattern-match, as well as then duplex transmit complex information back to another human, all while being augmented by our aural channel, centered around language!
The paper I referenced above (and here so you don’t have to click back up) spends a lot of time talking about the use of mirror neurons in learning language. Fair enough. But I propose (and I’m sure someone else has beat me to it!) that mirror neurons, and the imitation they allow between humans, also work on much higher knowledge structures than just pure speech formation. I think that the research will show that because of their obvious geographic spread inside the brain, mirror neurons are wrapped up in tons of broadcasted functioning throughout our systems. Karate teachers teach by demonstrating. And even university professors use mirroring during lectures. Basically every engineering professor I know does problems on the board, dumping complex algorithmic thought on top of their willing subjects. Students sit in seats, lapping it up, their brains believing that they’re getting all of it. But the minute the students walk out the door, they core-dump almost all of it. They have to go home and do that hippocampus-integrative processing that places it in the right side of the brain before they can use it.
If our theory of how people learn (explicit learning on the left -> hippocampus -> holistic integration on the right) then most, or all of the primary mirroring sites in the brain would be on the left. And, as amazing as it may seem — they are! I’d love to have a neuroscientist confirm this, but I dumped the brain part names into Wikipedia and sure enough — they all were on the left!
What this means is that we can have people imitate all sorts of complex behavior, because of the spread of mirror neurons across the brain, and they might be able to reproduce it if they do a little integrative practice on their own. Which maps to lots of learning environments that we’re familiar with. AND explains why tests can be such wonderful, integrative experiences. You practice until you get up to the edge of test-time, and then you have that Survival v-Meme-level neuroplastic moment where you integrate your understanding and have an epiphany! Or, well, you fail and go out and get drunk.
As I’ve said regarding just about everything I write, there’s nothing new under the sun. Confucius said:
To gain enlightenment through meditation is noblest
Through imitation is easiest
Through experience is bitterest
That Confucius — knowing about mirror neurons far before modern brain science! Who’d a thunk?
Note to doubters — there’s tons of papers out there on mirror neurons. Go get you some Google Scholar! And any neuroscientist that wants to help — please help!
Footnote: There really is a lot of fun out there with mirror neurons. It’s not some made-up thing. Here’s an interesting paper about monkeys and some kind of oddly expressed doubts — that mirror neurons aren’t what makes us ‘human’. I really don’t have any idea what that means, since I’ve come pretty firmly down on the side on ‘sentience is something that’s a function of brain function, and how it manifests is a direct result of the structure of the processor.’ Finally, this post in Scientific American is awesome because it has a.) some interesting information, and b.) it really shows the absolutistic nature of the scientific mind. Why does it always have to be ‘mirror neurons do it all’ or ‘mirror neurons don’t matter’ ? Oh yeah — its that social structure v-Meme thing I’m always droning on about… 😉