While teaching a workshop recently, I tried something I had never done before: I demonstrated a sequence without speaking a word. In the hushed movement of our shared breath, the participants observed my modified sun salutation and organized themselves into pairs to take turns witnessing one another. I was hoping to engage a recently identified capacity of the brain that we use all the time, called the mirror neuron system. Discovered by accident when researchers noticed that the same neurons in a macaque monkeys’ brain fired when the monkey reached for food, as when the monkey saw a researcher reach for food, mirror neurons have since been the subject of much study and speculation. Whether we’re considering the brains of macaques or humans, certain brain cells fire as if we were performing the same movements we see in others – even when we are completely still.
The breakthrough technology of functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) – which allows us to track the areas of the brain that are active, while actually engaged in tasks or activities, has found a more complex mirror neuron system in human beings, as compared to the simple mirror neurons in the macaque example. The application of mirror neurons in rehabilitating injuries is being studied, since a person could watch someone else performing a physical task and engage the brain function. There may also be profound spiritual implications. In my workshop exercise, I wanted to facilitate a shift out of the realm of verbal instruction and into this more immediate transmission of mind-body information; this wasn’t just monkey-see, monkey-do – I had an additional, deeper intention.
It turns out that some theorists (amongst them Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal) believe the mirror neuron system may be involved in how we feel empathy, which is the capacity to intuit someone else’s feelings and imagine them as our own. It is the case that there are mirror neurons for emotions as well as for movement. Studies by Christian Keysers at the Social Brain Lab in the Netherlands show a correlation between experiencing more emotional empathy and having a high degree of activity in the movement mirror neurons. This suggests that the two systems may be linked.
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