During our early stages of life, our brains start developing a unique set of neuron cells called mirror neurons, which are located in the parietal lobe on the top of our brain where visual and motor abilities intersect. When a baby is just a few weeks old and sees her mother smile, she then also smiles and mirrors this behavior. Months later, if the mother laughs, she will also try to contour her facial muscles and vocal chords to make the same movements and sounds in a form of facial mimicry. One often sees parents sticking out their tongue playfully at the baby and then the baby follows suit and also sticks out her tongue. When the baby grows up and becomes a toddler and sees her mother cry, she will come over in an act of love and cry as well, showing the early signs of empathy that we are wired for at an early age. The toddler’s mirror actions also demonstrate a strong attachment between mother and child. One could also argue that these mirror neurons allow adults to implicitly teach the young, who mirror the adults’ actions, and build scaffolding to ensure the successful adaptation of behaviors leading to human survival.
As adults, we may sit across the table from our friend at a coffee shop, and as our friend starts to cusp his hands around the coffee mug, so will we, without knowing or thinking. If my sister starts playing with her hair while we are talking face-to-face in our kitchen, I will also try to play with my hair, even though I am not conscious of mirroring her actions. Research shows that we keenly observe the objects in our environment, whether it is a loved one or a food object, and try to enact a mirror response. We often come physically closer to that object and contour our bodies and muscles, especially our mouth, in our mirror response. We watch with our eyes, pay close attention and use inference to produce a reciprocal matched action. In the end, my self-knowledge gets integrated with the knowledge and perception of others. We start to “mentalize or theorize” each other’s actions and points of views.
Mirrors neurons allow us to understand the intentions of others by replicating their actions through stimulus-response associations. In studies conducted with rhesus monkeys initially and then later humans, we watch the mouth movements of others and imitate them, especially when it comes to eating and yawning. We first perceive the motor actions of another person and/or object and then we execute it ourselves, even if we have never experienced that action before. The mirror system only responds to sensory-motor actions and not abstract ideas and thoughts inside our minds. However, this mirror system allows us to learn, sequence and execute complex responses. The more concrete the actions are then the better we can mirror them; abstract motions are less likely to be mirrored. For example, if someone falls down the stairs on a train platform and another person runs to help that person up, then we will also mimic the helping action by simply observing the goal-directed behaviors of others and moving in that same direction and motion to help.
Many psychologists would argue that we are wired for such acts of empathy and that our biology structures us to help each other out in a collective society, whether anonymously on a train platform or with our next door neighbors. Otherwise, we would die quickly and perish if there is no one there to support us when we face our battles, obstacles and storms. Human civilizations started off in tribes of a hundred or less who traveled together, mirroring each other’s behaviors and thoughts. Mirror neurons allow us to work collectively because we know each other’s intentions and act accordingly. However, in the last decade, in our fast paced world, more and more of us began living in solitary spaces, removed from the collective hive. When we start behaving like solitary individuals, we start to see ourselves as set apart from collective groups, especially those who are from different tribes.
In this recent pandemic, we have seen great acts of empathy as human beings reached out and mirrored responses. Walking down the street, I might see a mother and child moving in towards us; however, as we come closer, we mirror each other’s actions and immediately move six feet apart. We are starting to wear masks in public as we see mirror images of masked individuals all around us. We see people at the grocery store standing along the taped lines and get in queue. We are staying home because we are mirrors of each other. That is, our social brain knows what is best for all of us.
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Samina Hadi-Tabassum is an associate professor at Erikson Institute in Chicago. Her first book of poems, Muslim Melancholia (2017), was published by Red Mountain Press. She has published poems in Tin House, Clockhouse, Conduit, East Lit Journal, Soul-Lit, Journal of Postcolonial Literature, Papercuts, The Waggle, Indian Review, Classical Poets, Mosaic, Main Street Rag, Connecticut River Review, Pilgrimage Literary Journal, riksha, and These Fragile Lilacs. Her poems were performed on stage as a part of the Kundiman Foundation and Emotive Fruition event focusing on Asian American poetry in 2016. She was a 2018 Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Performance finalist for the Guild Complex competition in Chicago. She has also published a short story titled “Maqbool” in the New Orleans Review journal in June 2018 and now it is a chapter in a Penguin anthology on Muslim writers.