I am loaded with mirror neurons. Thankfully I have a friend named Rachel who has more than I do, so it makes me feel a little better about myself. We can both attest that an overload of mirror neurons can be a blessing, but it can also make life a little odd at times. As a young mom, while feeding my babies, every time they opened their mouth, I opened mine. I had to make a very conscious effort to keep my mouth shut, especially if Mike was around, because it was a thing of great entertainment for him. If I am trying to counsel someone who is crying, you can rest assured that I am bawling right along with them, even if I think they are the guilty party. It is just a reaction that my mirror neurons have—they mirror—like yawning when someone else does.
What are mirror neurons? Mirror neurons are just what the word suggests: they are connections in the brain that cause a person to mirror what they see. The classic example is the yawn. One person sitting in an auditorium does a big, noisy, wide-mouth yawn, and a ripple effect starts circulating around the room, most especially among those with a good amount of mirror neurons. First, the people closest to the yawner start fighting off yawns. Soon yawns are seen (and some heard) all over the room. For the unfortunate public speaker this can be most inopportune.
As soon as a baby is born, their mirror neurons or the lack thereof are made obvious. Some babies start smiling at you within days of being born. Although this would make you think you have one amazingly super-smart kid, in reality you just have a baby that mirrors what they see. One of my babies came out smiling at Mike as he was being delivered. I had another newborn that had a strange, intense, unsmiling stare until he was six weeks old. He appeared as if he were trying to make up his mind whether he liked me or not. Obviously, from the very beginning of life mirror neurons make a difference in how people respond to others. The greater number of these connections, the more a person relates and thus responds to what is in front of them.
Mirror neurons form the basis of empathy. We see hurt or joy in another person and our brain produces feelings based on what we see.
As a rule, mamas need more mirror neurons than daddies because it is easier to respond to their child’s needs. By “feeling” the need of her child, a mama has a natural instinct to do whatever is necessary to help, even when she is exhausted or ill. Clearly, mirror neurons were given to us by God as a way to preserve life. I do know many mamas who don’t appear to have an overload of mirror neurons, but their love for their child causes them to have a natural desire to learn how to read their child’s needs. They make wonderful mamas as well.
People who have more mirror neurons have a much greater ability to “read” people. They have what is referred to as an instinct to know when someone is hurt, hiding something, or is using someone else. A person with a lot of mirror neurons often appears to just “know” things about people, and they have no idea how they know. Those who do not have a lot of mirror neurons don’t have a clue and can’t understand how someone else can know things. People with fewer mirror neurons can be naïve.
So, what happens when two people, one with a profound lack of mirror neurons and the other who has deep feelings about
EVERYTHING, come together in marriage? It is a recipe for misunderstanding. In marriage counseling women angrily tell me, “I just want my husband to see when he hurts my feelings or notice when I am weary and need him to help me.” They say, “I do all the housework, child care, cooking, and even do the yard work, and help him in his business, and he just comes in from work and sits around. He doesn’t get up to help me unless I ask him, and by then I am upset.”
If I had a dollar for every time I have heard something similar to this, I would be able to sustain several charities. Women don’t seem to realize that their husband quite often doesn’t have the same overload of mirror neurons. Their brains just don’t have what it takes to SEE the need. Men assume any rational human being is going to tell them if there is something they should do. Attempts at education don’t seem to help. Even when men are carefully taught to practice taking notice of their wife’s emotional needs, they still have a hard time remembering to do it.
I must say, I have known a few families over the years where the husbands appear to have plenty of mirror neurons. Women acquainted with these families often point to how perfect the man of that home is and wish their husband could be likewise. These mirror-men often help with the kids as much as Mother does. They seem to know when to take the wife out to eat and when to wash the dishes. Dads who are blessed in this way are few and far between; I have only known a few over my LONG life. Mike was not one of these wonder dudes. MOST daddies are great at entertaining and roughhousing, but empathetic care is not their greatest strength. Even at 77 years old, Mike is still an entertaining roughhouse maniac. Mirror neurons are no respecter of the sexes, so keep in mind, some dads do seem to have mirror neurons in excess and some moms don’t.
It is interesting to note that men are usually more generous in appreciation of their wife’s mirroring than women are of their husband’s hard-work ethic. Husbands are often wowed by their wife’s amazing ability to know exactly what to do when there is an emotional crisis. Men are highly impressed when their wives “know” things about situations. Mirror-laden wives are not so generous. They are often somewhat critical and forget to be impressed by the husband’s willingness and ability to work, plan, focus, and succeed, especially when he over-works. It almost seems that a person with the ability to mirror is quicker to unjustly judge. Marriage can drastically improve when the wife finally learns to really appreciate her husband’s work ethic and learns not to expect him to read her mind. Most men want to please their wife. Understanding how the brain works can facilitate understanding and tolerance.
There are those in the behavioral sciences who have proven how this knowledge can be employed to help overcome all kinds of brain damage. These scientists can know when a child will be autistic by using the knowledge of mirror neurons, and thus get help early. But regardless of the success in this field, there are still those who say, “Prove it. I want to see the neurons in the brain actually functioning or I will publically call you a liar.”
It was the same argument when neuroplasticity was introduced about 50 years ago. Basically, for over 25 years there was not a single scientist open to considering that the brain could be retrained or molded, and those naysayers actually tried to put the genius who discovered neuroplasticity out of the business of research. He was terribly persecuted by his colleagues. It wasn’t until the truth was so loud and obvious that science was forced to embrace neuroplasticity. This new knowledge changed the face of how medical science viewed the brain. Scientists are just like the rest of the world; many are corrupt and are ready to sell out for money, and most choose to go along with the status quo. We have all seen a lot of that in the last two years, and many people have suffered untold damage. Think for yourself.
If you want to know more about the brain and how knowledge of it can help in relationships and child training, read my book Create a Better Brain through Neuroplasticity.