Mirror, Mirror In The Brain

Two and a half hours. Half of it in the dark. Beneath a freezing drizzle. That’s how long it took to get into the little cottage where Santa (whoops, I just accidentally typed Satan) waited to have his photo taken with my g-babies.

Little Atticus was happy that entire time—until we got to the very front of the line where three adults were wrestling a toddler, trying to make her sit on the jolly man’s lap.

She fought with all her might. Back arched. Arms and legs stiff. Her wail was so shrill I had to let Atticus’s little hand go so I could cover his ears.

You can guess how things went from there. The moment he laid eyes on her, his happy demeanor changed. She resisted, so he resisted. She cried, so he cried.

A part of me actually enjoyed the experience because I’ve been studying mirror neurons. They go back to the “monkey see, monkey do” idea. Here’s why: Just over twenty years ago at the University of Parma, scientists realized that specific cells in a money’s brain were activated not only when a monkey performed a certain task, but also when that monkey saw another monkey perform the same task.

This led to a mountain of hype. Many neuroscientists concluded that these “mirror” neurons are what allow us to empathize with others. I like that idea—that our Great Designer put special cells in us that allow us to feel what others feel. It could be the secret our humanity.

But it’s not that simple.

What is true is that if you’re a pianist, your mirror cells light up when another pianist plays. The non-piano-playing guy sitting next to you doesn’t have that response.

What is true is that you don’t have to be able to dunk a basketball to understand and appreciate what LeBron James is doing.

What is true is that when someone else yawns, you tend to yawn. Or cry…crying is psychologically contagious too.

What is true is that Atticus was happy until the little girl in front of him pitched a fit. She influenced Atticus, but not me. I didn’t scream and try to poke Santa’s eyes out. Neither did my five-year-old granddaughter who was also there. We’ve had more experience to control our response.

So…while science battles about mirror neurons, I’m going to enjoy the fact that they exist. There’s a part of my brain put there just so I can better understand the world around me. I think that’s incredibly awesome. Add to that, the fact that I get to choose my response. While I feel empathy for that little girl, don’t have to kick and scream and work myself into a frenzy. That means I don’t have to be afraid because someone else is afraid. Or mean. Or judgmental. Or just plain sad.

That’s big news, maybe not on the scientific front, but on my home front.

Right down to our very cells, a hand that neglected no detail, put you and me together. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then maybe those mirror cells do something more than equip us with empathy for others, maybe they serve as mirrors to show us who we truly are and who we can become.

It might not be scientific, but I like that theory.

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