Mirror neurons let you simulate the product of my experience of a reaction to an abstraction of a simulation about someone else, and 13 Photos in and around the Whitney Museum of American Art

My colleagues and I visited the Whitney museum on a team outing. There, we saw the exhibit: Mirror Cells. Mirror Cells references mirror neurons.

What's a mirror neuron?

Yeah, same. 

Think a thought. Got it? You just used some brain cells. But you used particular brain cells. And you have heaps of different kinds of brain cells. All different kinds. In fact, you have so many different kinds of brain cells that humanity still doesn't know how many brain cells exist. For example, in November last year Xiaolong Jiang and Andreas Tolias led a team of scientists to discover six new types of brain cells in mice. So far we've discovered about 15. And there are a lot more that we haven't discovered yet.

Ok but what's a mirror neuron?

Right, yeah, sorry. Got sidetracked blowing minds. Scientists don't really know, so they looked into it. They found that mirror neurons activate only when you observe the behavior of other animals. They came up with a theory: mirror neurons form the neural basis for emotions like empathy.

An Italian researcher, Dr. Rizzolatti, said about the mirror neurons: "[they] allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking."

Which is to say that human abstraction is based in direct stimulation. Because these cells trigger in response to chains of actions that have been associated with particular intentions. Like when you take a bite of your ice cream in front of your friend. Your friend's mirror neurons all go batshit and your friend's brain is simulating your action in her brain. 

Or like when you see me having a really shitty day, and you can see that I'm stressed out. Your mirror neurons trigger. And suddenly your brain undergoes a complex simulation of experiencing my day. And suddenly you feel empathy.

Mirror Neurons Present Big Implications

Mirror neurons bridge culture and biology. These neurons directly absorb culture and indelibly embed it into your actions and reactions. Just a guess here: when you travel and get culture shock you are experiencing a visceral physical and biological reaction. 

Some other animals have mirror neurons, too. Guess which ones.

  • Monkeys (definitely)
  • Apes (probably)
  • Elephants (possibly)
  • Dolphins (possibly)
  • Dogs (possibly)

Surprised? I'm not. All of these animals engage in deeply complex empathetic and social behaviors. Note that the mirror neurons possessed by these animals are all rudimentary compared to those possessed by humans.

Thanks to our huge working memory, we have much more sophisticated imitations.
Fun fact: Nicotine expands your working memory.

Mirror neurons also form the basis for language. And sign language. You learn the language by imitating the way other people move their lips and mouth and tongue and teeth. That's why it's easier to learn a language when you're immersed in it. Your mirror neurons are constantly imitating and simulating the language actions.

And researchers theorize that Autism may involve broken mirror neurons on the basis of UCLA neuroscience studies of the condition.

According to empirical studies from University of Washington researchers, mirror neurons kick in as early as birth. It's part of how we learn behavior.

All social emotions are wired into the brain by mirror neurons. These neurons trigger when you watch someone go in for a high-five and the other person rejects it. Mirror neurons form the basis of humiliation, empathy, aggression.

Mirror Neurons in Art

At the Whitney Museum, the Mirror Cells exhibit features works that artists created in "empathetic responses to events such as the loss of a loved one, preoccupations of a particular community, or changes that impact the world more broadly." And these works interact with one another by implicitly triggering your own mirror neurons. 

You know when you go to a therapist and experience transference? When you "transfer" feelings about important people or experiences in your life to your therapist, that's transference. And the therapist then experiences countertransference: her reactions to you are shaped by the therapist's own earlier experiences. And researchers theorize that mirror neurons form the neurological basis for this experience.

Ok now apply that to this exhibit.

These artists transfer their emotional reactions to events in their own lives into artwork, a product. And then you experience this artwork, thereby experiencing an abstracted sense of the artist's transference. But you viscerally react this artwork on the basis of your earlier experiences. And so you re-experience the artist and the product and the rest of the products in this ephemeral landscape.

And then the artist transfers her feelings to you as your reaction to her abstraction of a simulation that she had about someone else's emotional experience.


Now scroll down and experience the product of my experience of a reaction to an abstraction of a simulation about someone else.

I like that you read this whole editorial.

I'm listening to an audiobook of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and my mirror neurons are dying.