To be Conscious of Consciousness. Mirror Neurons and Human Freedom.
With the discovery of mirror neurons, it could be that a new neural network is opening for the contemplation of human interdependency, empathy and the deeper nature of consciousness, through the biological medium of the human brain.
Beyond the empathic function of mirror neurons, there is a hardly-touched area of research. These neurons are about unconditioned awareness. When mirror neurons are empathic to their own awareness, (when the brain becomes aware that it is aware), a whole new brain capacity for meta-perspective opens up in which neuroplasticity (and the brains ability to change, adapt and oversee conditions) could be greatly enhanced.
Does this mental ability to awaken to collective consciousness represent a blind spot in the field of neuroscience?
Mirror Neurons and the Monkey
The scientific anecdote has it that in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties some Italian neurophysiologists – Rizzolatti, Di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, and Gallese at the University of Parma, had the ventral premotor cortex of a macaque monkey hooked up with electrodes to study neurons specialized for the control of hand and mouth actions. Each time the monkey picked up a peanut to eat, his brain would signal: “click, click, click”.
One day, a researcher himself took a peanut and began to eat it, as the monkey watched. The same sound “click, click, click,” resonated through the monitor, although the monkey hadn’t moved an inch. The monkey’s brain reacted identically on an observed action to when the action was physically done by the monkey herself.
Repeated tests showed that an observed action in another can signal the same brain response as first-hand physical action. The neurons that fired in response to actions taken by someone else’s body have been called Mirror Neurons.
We can easily recognize these theorized mirror neurons at work: each time we clutch our heads in despair when the player misses the penalty; when we’re watching a drama on TV; or in any emotional engagement with situations that are none of our business.
When I was a toddler, my brother cut his leg. My response was to not walk myself for a week. Was this the effect of unshielded mirror neurons hardly restrained by the un-programed infant brain?
“I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.”
Prof. V.S. Ramachandran
The new millennium has witnessed an expanding wealth of research around the existence, role and potential of mirror neurons.
The functioning of mirror neurons (or lack of) has been theoretically linked to autism; they have been described as critical in processes of learning, mimicry, intention, anticipation and even in the evolutionary leap from Neanderthal to today’s splendid example of human.
While scientific dissenters have attempted to puncture the hype, casting doubt on the phenomena, as well as on the task and location of mirror neurons in the brain, research is only now unfolding into the scientific implications of what some neuroscientists, such as Prof. Vilayanur Ramachandran, have indicated could be the neurological missing link in basic skills of empathy.
From a nondual perspective, in which consciousness is seen as a unified field rather than a localized affair, the discovery of empathic mirror neurons is inspiring.
Experientially, it’s not surprising that we have brain cells that translate the actions of another body in the same way that they translate the actions of our own physical matrix.
Leaving aside direct ANS input of physical sensation, observation of one’s own body is not so critically different from the observation of another body doing that thing. A line which separates one from the other is mostly formed by thought identification. A vast amount of sensory input is in itself collective. For example, a sudden clap of thunder will resonate through all bodies in the area simultaneously. When it rains, we all hear the sound and we all get wet. The separation between one physical body and another is more conceptual than physical.
Yet for the freedom to interchangeably experience your own stuff with the stuff of the “other”, a third position or overview is needed. Logically, this would seem to be the consciousness (that which chooses to identify or not) which is the backdrop to all experience and which is claimed to exist independently of the contents of experience. This consciousness gives freedom of form, and a freedom of choice over which neurological pathway to follow.
The unconditioned consciousness that witnesses the movement of physical, mental and emotional form is understood in nonduality as fundamental to perceptive reality. This conscious ‘witness’ is not memory dependant, and as experience can only occur in the present moment, it is also not time dependant. What mirror neurons introduce is the additional possibility that the access points of consciousness are also not dependent on space or spatial conditions.
“A physical peanut for one, is an experiential peanut for all.”
It is clear that in the empathic movement between my peanut and the professor’s peanut, the idea of a definable, separate self has broken down. A physical peanut for one, can be an experiential peanut for all.
Yet sensory experience is not limited to physical acts, it is also how we experience emotional stress, pain or relief. This physical resonance of non-physical sensation also resonates through mirror neurons – perhaps to a refinement that we can hardly capture. This is happening biologically of itself, to be blocked only by the active neglect or repression of mirror neuron activity.
In their quality of empathy, mirror neurons would seem to be receptive – a receptivity that can be obscured by rejecting thought patterns – but which is nevertheless the same natural tendency found in a monkey.
Such repression through conditioned thought control (it’s not ‘my’ happiness, it’s ‘his’) can be viewed at the root of jealousy, competition, suffering and war. Allowance and cultivation of mirror neurons and resulting neuroplasticity could lead to greater freedom, togetherness and a realistic flow of interdependence that could provide a utopian model for any community or society. Yet like any biological ability, mirror neurons need to be used in order for them to multiply.
Who am I again?
When we really move into the perceptive experience of being alive, it can become clear that our whole interpersonal sensory reality is composed of our perceptions of others and the environment.
We see the facial responses, struggles, egos and accidents of others from many perspectives, whereas we are physically unable to see ourselves in such living totality.
The closest we get in visual input about our own physical objectivity is through photographs, video recordings and mirrors on the wall. But a vast amount of sensory data and perspective is excluded from these forms. Our experience of our own self is entirely entangled with and dependant on the feedback we get from others. In a way, we exist as a personality, only in the sum total of reflections in the interpersonal field.
Mirror neurons invite us to realize that our reality was never separable from the whole.
Awareness of Awareness
This non-physical, empathic ability of mirror neurons to fire in response to the perception of “others”, also gives us the ability to empathize with ourselves as if we were also “other”.
Because of mirror neurons, we (the subject) are also able to reflect on our own identity, emotional patterns, instinctive drives (the objects of inner perception). We are able to have empathy for another form, but also for and our own ‘inner’ form. We are able to self reflect, to become self conscious and even to be conscious that we are conscious.
What happens when a mirror neuron sparks empathy for its own empathy? What happens when the mirror neuron’s awareness turns to the other mirror neurons, and the brain becomes aware that it is aware? What is then reflected?
The brain is still alive, firing reflections but now it is reflecting its own capacity for reflection, like a tunnel of mirrors into infinity. On a cellular level, we are becoming aware that we are aware, in increasing degrees of refinement and liberation from normal perceptive constraints. Could this be a neurophysiological explanation for the phenomena of spiritual awakening?
Where Binary Brain Surrenders
Now, we have no choice but to take ourselves as the laboratory monkey. In the experience of awareness of awareness, (the tunnelling of mirror neurons into infinity), the wiring of the brain seems to flip into another dimension beyond habitual neural pathways. This expansion could be a result of a new superconductivity between left brain and right brain.
The effect is a feeling of power, freedom and benevolence. The sense of separation from life falls away. There is an expansion of existential impressions of eternity and infinity – of ‘being’ unconditioned by time and space. The programed mind defaults to a deep, connected sense of ‘is-ness’, unconditional to circumstances (pleasure, pain, past, future).
In the acceleration and collapse of the tension between subject and object, seen already in the monkey salivating over the professor’s ice-cream, a more evolved layer of mind begins to fire up.
This kind of mind is less identified yet more ingenious. It moves beyond the ‘either-or’, binary equations of subject-object and into the “and-and” formulas that reflect life more truthfully: (also the professor and also the monkey eat peanuts). In developing the ability to relax into paradox, many possibilities, and many feelings, there is an increasing surrender in responsivity to environmental stimuli in any moment.
The more our nervous system learns to recognize these mental perspectives beyond the limitation of time and space as safe and benevolent, the more it relaxes into them and new, more expansive areas of the brain begin to thrive.
Neurons multiply according to how often they are fired. If we don’t use them, we lose them. The more we walk a particular path through the forest of the mind, the more likely we are to walk it, and the easier the walking becomes. This is the nature of education and training. We learn through resonating with the “other”, then we do it ourselves (as we have already walked that path with our role model), and then we do it easily and without drama. What at first could have spritzed adrenalin into the system can later signal easiness and home-coming.
The more often we walk new pathways of the brain, the more easily the pathways open. The more we practise mindfulness, self-reflection and empathy, the more mirror neurons we have at our disposal, and the easier it becomes to disentangle and to access this deeper existential layer of being beyond conflict. Through tending the garden of our minds, we find more freedom in form, which is mastery in form.
“It is extraordinary how near we are to our deeper being. It’s just a thought away.”
Ram Dass – Polishing the Mirror
When we move to subtler frequencies of brain, such as the perspective of timeless, unattached consciousness, or the resonance of unbounded being, these mirror neurons and the effects of them are firing our brains, but also, through empathy, through all the brains in the vicinity.
Could this be a neurological reflection of what has been called the transmission of enlightenment from teacher to student?
Is this why meditation in a cave in Lhasa makes a difference even if it is far from the madding crowd?
If what is true of a peanut is also true of enlightened minds, then the liberation of our own perception from the limitations of habitual reactions and thought programs would have an immediate physiological impact on everyone around us – generations forward and backward – without us moving a muscle of saying a word.
Empathy is embodied, instinctive and unconscious. All we need to do is allow it. This means relaxing into the spaces beyond thoughts, relaxing into the formless, infinite screen that precedes imagination, and becoming mentally at ease in co-existing dimensions beyond duality, unconditioned by the parameters of time and space.
“Transcend the body even while it is experienced.”
Shri Nisargadatta Maharaj
A Postscript on Mirror Neurons in Trauma Therapy
Beyond vulgarities of self-pity, the release of the idea of ‘private’ self is critical to healing trauma through the reconnection of the rejected, traumatic part within the social and interpersonal field (the great, collective neural network). This is the premise through which most talk therapy works. Forbidden stuff gets reintegrated, through shared awareness, into the conscious whole.
Many can recognize traumatic states of differing severity: they are found in those phases when the parameters of reality seem to shift and we get sucked into an inner tunnel of pain and vulnerability – shrinking our universe to survivalist proportions.
Such states narrow our consciousness and close down our sense perceptions. When another is in deep connection with us, but remains open and relaxed, then our own neurons have the possibility of firing less in the direction of existential threat (activating the sympathetic nervous system) and more out of perspectives of freedom. Just through the unfettered awareness of the non-traumatized ‘other’, healthier neural networks are able to form within the brain.
If we were able to move with empathy towards ourselves at such times (“The smaller me is suffering a traumatic state now-“), through the additional use of mirror neurons, then a new spaciousness could arise in which healing possibilities emerge through freedom of perspective. We can “take care” of ourselves, in the same way that we would care of any loved one, as we are not ultimately the form which is suffering (we have just been hard-wired to the idea of individual isolation).