Over dinner the other night I was avidly listening to a friend talking about her new lover. He was technically good at his craft (a good start). He was very attractive (yep, promising). But he didn’t show a lot of emotional response in bed. “He is very quiet. He doesn’t say anything or make any ecstatic noises. He just sort of goes into a private space. When I look at him, he seems to be enjoying it, but because he is so withdrawn it makes me feel inhibited … Or something … I don’t know, but I just don’t feel a high-voltage turn on.”
I know exactly what she means, and I also know why. It has everything to do with Mahatma Gandhi. Yes, it does, I swear.
It goes like this. How someone close feels about something directly influences how we feel in that moment. Their feelings trigger our own. For instance, a friend who I adored became a mother at the same time I did. But she didn’t enjoy being a mum. I had the silly-bliss expression while breastfeeding; she would look tired and cranky. While I bounced up like a gazelle to my new infant’s cries despite being sleep-deprived, she would turn away with a dark glare and begrudgingly get him. Though we had good times together, I felt awful being in the presence of someone whose body and facial language was so negative — it took away from an experience that was precious to me; and our friendship petered out for a while.
It’s common to feel another’s feelings; take how we feel watching a sports star kick a goal, or a contestant on stage singing, or the empathy we feel seeing someone getting pricked by a needle, or crying, or turned on. Neuroscientists always pondered why. Then more than two decades ago a team of Italian researchers were observing the frontal lobes of monkeys’ brains and noticed that certain cells/neurons were activated when a monkey performed an action and when that monkey watched another monkey perform the same action. They called them “mirror neurons” — crucial to survival of the species.
A recent study has also confirmed that “touch-sensitive” mirror neurons responded to the sight of another animal actually being touched in the same location — a phenomenon prominent neuroscientist VS Ramachandran called “the Gandhi effect” because he says mirror neurons dissolve the barriers between us in the way that the late Indian leader advocated.
He says: “They are empathy neurons that allow us to feel other people’s feelings and bodily sensations … This is the basis of much Eastern philosophy.” We are, he says, only separated by skin; there is no independent self, aloof from others; rather we are all connected — not just by Facebook or the internet — but literally by neuron chains talking to each other, a shared consciousness. “This is not mumbo jumbo philosophy, it’s basic neuroscience,” he says.
Ramachandran is author of The Tell-Tale Brain and a distinguished professor of neuroscience at the University of California. One of the early researchers into mirror neurons, he has called them “the basis of civilisation” in a TED talk and believes that the virtual reality mirror neurons — which comprise between 10 and 20 per cent of the neurons we use for real activity — are the cornerstone of human empathy, language and love.
So how does it all work? And why do I wince and hold my breath when I see people hurt? Why do I cry and laugh when others cry or laugh? Why is my friend’s sexual experience diminished by not seeing pleasure, the flush of a face, or indeed hearing the sounds of love (sound also triggers mirror neurons — not just sight)?
Researchers have been looking at three main areas of study: motor skill mirroring, physical empathy and emotion. While observing monkeys’ brains, they noticed that certain motor command cells in the frontal lobes activated the same sequence of muscle twitches both when a monkey grabbed an object or when watching another do the task. It later was observed that the similar subset neurons responded to a thumb being poked in another animal, creating real sensations in the viewer — making scientists hypothesise that the mirror neurons were involved in empathy for pain also.
This was further then explored observing emotions — the findings being that happiness literally is infectious. Experiments using brain imaging technology fMRIs showed that certain brain regions activate when people experience an emotion (disgust, happiness, joy, pain) but surprisingly also when they see another person experiencing an emotion.
Ramachandran says the purpose of mirror neurons is as a learning tool to skip the long process of Darwinian evolution (for example, a child watching its parent kill an animal and take its coat for warmth, learning a skill that spreads across generations and communities). Also to feel empathy and another’s pain helps us merge into social tribes that would have kept us safe from predators on the prairie; they allow us to fall in love and procreate by creating bonds via shared feelings.
There are those calling for calm amid all the excitement. British cognitive neuroscientist and science writer Christian Jarrett says mirror neurons are “an exciting, intriguing discovery” but stresses caution in reading too much into unscientific claims around what he calls exaggerated and oversimplified neuro-bunk and media hype. He holds particular disdain for articles such as one that claimed “the most popular romantic films are distinguished by the fact they activate our mirror neurons”. Another claimed that it’s thanks to mirror neurons that hospital patients benefit from having visitors. “In fact, there is no scientific research that directly backs either of these claims, both of which represent reductionism gone mad,” Jarrett says.
But Ramachandran’s findings are by all accounts worth getting excited about. His research on humans confirms that while we do feel something when we observe someone stroking their arm, our own “touch and pain” receptors on the skin report back to the brain that we are not really being touched. This feedback loop protects us from hurting all the time or being confused. But when doctors anaesthetise our skin to prevent the “touch and pain” sensors telling the brain it is an illusion, the watcher actually starts feeling the virtual stroking of the other person’s arm at a real, visceral level with all physiological responses. This revolutionary work is now being applied to those who have lost limbs, who can find relief by feeling their phantom arm/foot being massaged or squeezed.
I think the conclusion is that it’s important to be surrounded by the right friends. And next time you go to a restaurant, or movie, or take on a new lover, choose your partner wisely. Because to misquote a Swedish proverb, “Shared joy is a double joy”, but pain is ditto.