Cognitive Routes Toward Empathy

I learned about mirror neurons before I knew what they were. We didn’t discuss these little brain pieces in my psychology courses at U of I. At least, I don’t remember discussing them.

There was a long string of hormones and hemispheres and lobes and Wiernke this and Braca that. I recall little pictures of synapses and the corresponding discussions about firing them and the little joke I kept making from then on about how several people I knew did not have all their synapses firing when they should.

It may have been that mirror neurons were noted in Dr. Boch’s course. I’m sure if I emailed Dr. Zabradoff about it, she could pull up a syllabus or an outline or, back then, a slide from her overhead projector which would clearly explicate the difference between that neuron and some other notoriously-to-me-obscure cellular detail.

I was not a specialist in those subjects under cognitive psychology. I preferred the clinical emphases which gave me some tools to talk to people with varying levels of brain strength. I was the student looking to hear from people on a crisis line in the middle of the night whose synapses were firing too much, mental pictures blending together into a collage they’d try to explain three hours before I was to wake up and go to class.

Even then I knew there was such a thing as a mirror neuron. I talked about it most recently to my wife as the thing my boy sensed when he was a little baby, when one of us was anxious, which would make him anxious. When I started my residency in clinical pastoral education, I learned that my son’s mirror neurons were firing.

A mirror neuron is that tiny brain particle that enables us—in our heads and in the rest of us—to mirror the experience of another. It is part of an internal neural mechanism that provides “a cognitive route” for our brains to evaluate social systems and for our emotions to catch up and act accordingly.

Another way of saying it is that mirror neurons make empathy possible. They are the little tools in our heads that make us able to see a social situation and create an appropriate emotional, verbal, and social response. And we often gauge response by mirroring what we see in another person. So we see a person who’s anxious and we interpret the situation as anxiety-provoking. We judge for the best response. We either become a non-anxious or, better, a less-anxious presence, or we get swept into (i.e., we jump into) the anxiety itself.

Have you ever noticed that you yawn when someone else does, that you feel happy after being around a person who lifts your spirit a bit? Those are mirror neurons at work.

I wonder what it would be like for people to take that little piece of information and run with it. If we could agree in the world for a moment or in a congregation for a weekend to show forth some kind of joy in front of another, some type of resilience for another, in order that that person might mirror us. It feels like it’s worth doing.

What if we agreed to show our deepest wounds, to wear them across our faces, in order to reflect the real, already present vulnerability at the core our selves? We could do it with our mental illnesses, with a quieted grief processes, with our dashed hopes and our fledgling beliefs.

It feels like we might make the world a slightly deeper place, a place where we could be less ashamed of smiling or crying or sobbing because we wouldn’t be the only ones doing so.

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