Friday, December 08, 2006

Mirror Neurons

I discovered something this week that seems really important for anyone who grew up in hugely dysfunctional families. (Note: I’ve seen the same phenomenon in women who were in abusive relationships for significant lengths of time.)

On an email loop I’m on, someone posted a link. I’m going to post it here so you can check it out to see what I’m talking about. It’s: NOVA scienceNOW Mirror Neurons PBS

Why is this important? Well, the idea is that our brains have neurons that mirror the emotions of those around us. I’m paraphrasing but as I understand it, the idea is that we literally feel what others around us feel and that when we see someone else do something our brains respond as if we have done it as well.

Here’s my theory and how it applies to abused children. Note: I have no scientific proof of this, it’s just MY theory. If we grew up in a household with crazy parents, survival and NOT repeating the pattern of abuse may have required that we detach from that mirroring. Not that we couldn’t do it but that we somehow learned not to in order to protect ourselves. In a sense we learned to shield ourselves.

Let me be very clear. We still PERCEIVED the emotions—often more clearly than other children could because it was a survival mechanism to be able to read the moods of the adults around us. We just learned not to mirror what they feel. Because that ability to mirror IS important, however, we may have channeled it into safe directions such as deeply internalizing emotions of the characters when we read a book, listened to music, or watched a movie or television show.

Pretty clever, huh? And no more unlikely than any other survival mechanism that abused children adopt to survive. The problem is that as adults we may find ourselves detached from others. We may tend to be loners. We may be able to see the emotions others are feeling with remarkable insight (perhaps because we can observe without being caught up in the other person’s emotions) but we stay isolated in our own emotions. In other words, if I’m right, we may watch with some bemusement the way others get caught up in crowd emotions when it makes no sense to us—whether it’s sports, politics, or whatever. We still feel emotions ourselves. We still see and understand and CARE about how others feel—sometimes too much—we just do not mirror those emotions in the same way that other people do.

The upside of this is that we may be able to be more clearsighted in evaluating situations and information and less likely to get caught up in the “mob mentality.” We may be able to work with people who are hurting without being overwhelmed ourselves.

The downside is that it does isolate us to some degree. In extreme cases, one could become a psychopath. But that’s not what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about those of us who are able to empathize and care about others but not mirror those emotions in the way that most people do.

Another downside is that we may tend to choose partners who lack the ability to mirror emotions as well because it’s too scary to have someone mirror ours. If they are capable of empathizing it may be okay but if we choose someone who literally cannot comprehend the emotions of others we’re in trouble because odds are we’ll know the relationship is lacking something important—even if we can’t articulate what it is.

So, how can we best use this information? How can we perhaps even reconnect the ability to mirror what others feel without losing the ability to step back to clearly evaluate what we are seeing or hearing?

1) Recognizing that it IS a factor in how we interact with the world.
2) We can understand and honor our child selves for finding a way to survive.
3) We can create alternative methods of safety so that we no longer need to detach.
4) We can consciously choose, in nonthreatening situations, to allow ourselves to feel what others are feeling, to allow ourselves to get caught up in group emotions when that would be a positive thing.
5) We can recognize that when others pull away in the presence of our intense emotions, it may not be a rejection of us or what we are trying to tell them but rather that the other person cannot help mirroring what we are feeling and MUST get away for self-protection.
6) We can recognize that this mirroring mechanism may help to explain some of what we felt as a child before we learned how not to mirror the emotions of the adults around us.
7) We can recognize how this explains the power of responding to anger with love and why we can change the dynamics in a room by being the one who is able to smile and feel hope when others do not.
8) We can recognize the power in finding someone who we are able to trust enough to let ourselves mirror the person’s emotions IF that person believes in us and has a sense of optimism about us and about life in general.
9) We can choose to spend as little time as possible with negative people and consciously seek out those who have a positive outlook on life.

I’ll admit that my first reaction to this concept was one of depression. Oh, great, one more lifetime negative impact of abuse! And then I stopped and reminded myself of all the ways in which I had accomplished what was supposed to be impossible in my life. I reminded myself of all the ways I have defied what would have been reasonable predictions for who I would become and what I would do. And so, as I thought about it, I realized how liberating it was to have this information. I realized that deep down I do believe that with this knowledge I will be able to make my life even better than it already is. I realized that I can acknowledge how essential it was for me, as a child, to adapt in this way and at the same time embrace the idea of exploring possibilities including that of reconnecting the mirroring mechanism.

Knowledge is power and this new piece of information feels like just that to me—power. I hope that each of you may find it a source of power for you as well.

Sending safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),


Anonymous said...

still cant explain multiples just damn well wish something coulfd but reality is our brain gave a completely diff neurone just no one can see it yet

Franki said...

I am writing to invite you to submit a post to the 7th Edition of the Carnival Against Child Abuse, hosted by Sadly Normal. Since it is the last one of the year, I would like to make it huge! I have a few different categories, and I have opened up my blog to guest writers for people who dont have a blog.

The information can be found here:

Thank you for your consideration!!!

Be gentle to you.
Lisa aka Franki
Seeking Justice for Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse

April_optimist said...


Thanks for the heads up! I've just submitted two possible posts.

April_optimist said...

Jumping in Puddles,

My theory is that sometimes when a child is overwhelmed, he or she creates a sheltered place inside for aspects of him/herself that need to be protected and shuts down everything except what is needed to cope at that moment.

In some children, this will mean a sense of fragmentation but the child will still be one person, just able to focus tightly on things when necessary. In other cases, the split will become so complete that the person becomes multiple.

In either case, it seems to me that an optimal strategy as an adult is to embrace each aspect and thank that aspect for helping the person to survive. And invite all the aspects to work together with the NEW tools that have been acquired that might be better than what was available before. One can imagine teaching those aspects to play that always had to be serious. One can imagine bringing out into the daylight those aspects one has felt compelled to hide to protect. For example, a child belittled for an interest in art can, as an adult, choose to openly experiment with art because now it's safe. The whole can embrace each aspect and encourage laughter and a sense of safety and the knowledge that working together all can be safer and happier than any oen aspect working alone.

It was a defense mechanism, a way to survive, a way to protect aspects of the self that abusers would have destroyed if they could.

As I said, that's my theory.