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The Powerful Magic of Mirror Neurons

Updated: Nov 19, 2018

I’ve been reflecting recently on the power of mirroring. Feeling seen and understood is an innate human need that is indicated by the very wiring of our brains. Built in to our neurology is an elemental capacity to reflect others’ feelings and expressions on our own skin. Watch an infant and parent together and you will witness each one communicating back and forth through sound and facial expression, each reflecting the other’s state. Echoed coos, duplicated expressions, playful faces rebound between the two in a delicate dance of communion all made possible thanks to our mirror neurons. These are eloquent examples of nonverbal expression and confirmation that occur through mirroring: yes, I see you; your sounds are heard. You are important. You can create an effect in me (and on the world).

This mirroring is so elemental yet so very necessary to attachment and development. It mostly happens without thought. Just the other day, sitting at a parent teacher conference with my daughter, we were nearing the end of our meeting and, feeling a bit tired, I placed my chin down to rest on the top of a small thermos of tea that I’d brought. The teacher smiled and pointed out that my daughter, just to my right at the opposite corner of the table, was doing the same thing. We turned to each other and grinned in unison. Totally unplanned was the replicated posture as well as the shared smile of enjoyment. It just happened and we enjoyed it when it was reflected back to us in yet another shared experience: our teacher seeing, naming and sharing our joy as a parent herself who’d experienced similar moments with her child.

When these incidents of reflection happen we feel we matter. We know our importance as well as our power: we can effect this giant world in which we live, one smiling face at at time. Indeed, to an infant, this experience may feel akin to moving mountains. The pure primitive satisfaction of eliciting in our caregiver a response to our needs is the ultimate soothing balm for any discomfort. As well, the elation of sharing laughter that matches our own increases our own joy exponentially. These are the basic building blocks for healthy development as a human being.

Sometimes there are interruptions in this process. For a variety of reasons a parent may not have been available for a period of time, or his or her own experience as a child was not filled with enough moments like these to produce that response in its intuitive natural form. The wonderful thing about parenting is we can often go back and heal these breaches later on. We can choose to interact and consciously repair with our simple attention and readiness to connect. Another wonderful thing is that the children themselves will frequently find ways to bring to our attention either the need for connection or the need for repair.

Think of all the fun games that come from mirroring: the copycat game, echoing, hand clapping games, even Simon Says. When a child spontaneously begins to slip into one of these games it can be so delicious to join him or her and go along for the ride. If we can allow ourselves the space to become beguiled with these moments the healing happens automatically. The game itself is the healing.

I’d been sitting with this topic for a few days, considering how I might want to write about it, when a most spectacular example of mirroring’s capacity was literally made broadcast to me. I was watching one of the sweetest movie scenes ever to offer surprise and delight placed, as it is, in the middle of a tense, scary movie. Its very position in such a movie in itself offers the viewer a vicarious experience of relief and gratification much as the parent receives from his child through his endearing way of reaching his dad via spontaneous mirroring. The movie is Jaws; the scene is Chief Brody and his young son, Sean, at the table after dinner. The father is very stressed and saddened when his son begins to imitate his every move: head resting on fist, taking a drink from a glass, hands folded in front of face. It is at this point that the child’s mother, Ellen, begins to notice this unfolding from the next room and stands in the doorway watching. Brody puts his hands over his face in despair and worry, Sean does the same, both allowing their hands to slide back down over their mouths. Dad glances over and sees his son, finally recognizing what is happening: he is being seen and reached for by his youngest boy. The game begins. Ellen is touched as she witnesses their exchange and its sweet conclusion.

What I love about this scene is not only that Sean is successful in making contact through a simple game of mirroring and that his dad responds in such an emotionally available way, making that possible through play, but also how watching it shifts the experience of the viewer, as if we, too, are being seen and mirrored. We are deeply affected by the previous scene in which Brody’s complicity in a terrible event is confronted, empathizing with his pain and shame in our own mirror neurons. Little Sean breaks the spell by simply being there with us – with his dad – his own face serious and contemplative just like dad’s (and ours). We enter the magic ourselves and are uplifted when the language becomes play and it ends with a kiss. The music and simple sweetness give us a taste of the power of mirroring in our everyday lives: we are uplifted and relieved.

Pay attention to the ways in which children efficiently read and mirror us. Watch for their ways of reaching out, whether through mirroring or some other attempt to get our attention. Get there and play. Notice, too, how our own mirroring of another can help him or her feel more connected. We are truly not alone: we need only wake up to the tiny details to be reminded of our togetherness.

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