The Dark Side of the Mirror Neuron – When All Hell Breaks Loose
Why do good people do bad things? How is that sometimes we’re swept away on a flood of negative emotion and later apologize, saying “I wasn’t myself”? How do despots persuade the people to murder on their behalf, to sacrifice even their lives for destructive causes? The answer can be partly be found in the dark side of the mirror neuron.
Mirror Neurons – coined ’empathy neurons’ have opened the flood gates to new understandings in neurobiology and neuropsychology. Italian neurophysiologists Rizzolatti, Di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, and Gallese at the University of Parma discovered this empathic resonance in the brain of monkeys, it opened the flood gates of research opportunity – in areas ranging from autism, Parkinsons, to whole new theories of mind. Here, at I AM HERE, we have raised the possibility that the mirror neuron system is a biological means through which self contemplation, healing, awakening and spiritual liberation can occur (see: To be conscious of consciousness: mirror neurons and human freedom.)
The brain is a neutral organ of perception in which there is no such thing as ‘good’ neurons and ‘bad’ neurons. It’s an interdependent system of connectivity, like your personal computer. Mirror neurons reflect the biological means through which we attune to the energetic resonance moving through us, either through our own cells or the environment, and often both. They allow us to blend with the love between species, with the peace of the universe and with the inviolable sense of belonging of all that is.
Yet there is another side. When we are in a room full of angry people, we resonate with the anger – and even with the layers of feeling or emotion moving through it. That is, we experience the vibration as our own. This plays out whether or not we consciously agree with the anger. Refusal to merge with the anger then will reflect itself in the resonance of fear – the flip side of the energy of threat.
Sitting in a room full of professional mediators in the midst of vicious divorce proceedings, I observed this in action. During the first five minutes there was good intention, procedure, etiquette and a clear intention to look objectively at the issues in hand in order to find solutions for the whole. One person in the room, the husband, was in full survival mode, energetically and physically broadcasting rage, contempt and cataclysmic horror. Within 15 minutes, I looked at the room of cool professionals in amazement at what had happened. Each one was screaming into the space in front of them with urgency and compulsion. No-one was listening to anyone. None of them even cared that they weren’t being heard. The overriding compulsion was to express – get rid of – this inner rage or horror immediately. They lost themselves in his field, despite the fact that none of them had a personal investment or risk in the outcome. As we say (and we know what we mean) – All hell breaks loose.
Mirror neurons fire when we just watch another person doing a task, as if we were doing the task ourselves. The border between the self and the ‘other’ literally breaks down. As Prof. Ramachandran points out in the video below, the only thing separating us from other human beings “is our own skin”. Yet there is an additional monitor on our merging with the environment, known as the frontal parietal cortex. This system, spanning left and right sides of the brain, is the inhibitor of mirror neurons through the signals it gives off through discernment – “This is not my body that is being tortured, it’s only on TV”. This inhibits a fully embodied experience of what we perceive is happening in a space removed from ourselves. It’s a system of a control
Meditation effects the parietal cortex, as do certain psychodelic drugs. Psychodelics decrease its activity, which can lead to the experiential intensity of a good or very bad trip. Meditation however, seems to introduce a greater degree of discernment through the development of the neural pathway of the and-and. Without losing the stillness of self, the emotions of the ‘other’ or even of the ‘other’ inside ourselves, can be experienced as a happening within the stillness. This allows mirror neurons to serve the purpose of liberation – through empathy towards another’s condition or attunement to the energetic atmospheres of the environment, without the loss of center that leads to identification, entanglement and reactivity. Through meditation, the inhibitory control centers of the brain develop through practice to a form of mastery, where inhibition of experience is no longer fear-driven. Every experience can run through the system, without compromising the deeper center of the system.
Between this and that, mirror neurons not only reflect the surface of what’s playing out around us and through us, but can also reflect more root causes. That is, with education and training, they can become the servants of compassion. As a function of our own emotional intelligence, mirror neurons can attune, for example, not to the rage itself, but to the despair beneath that. At this frontier between self and other, inside and outside, our ability to stay ‘free’ is a direct function of our own unfinished business with unresolved emotions, old depressions or trauma. In this we can become confused, and the confusion is always an invitation to deeper self healing. In this, the parietal cortex is not a control freak or means to repress resonance, but potentially an instrument of spiritual discernment and attunment – rather like the dial on a radio. In its mastery, it can scan, tune in and tune out to emotional vibration, without being enslaved in the reflex to grasp or reject.
The implications of this are tremendous. In the classic coupling of narcissist with care-taker for example, the unspoken rage of the narcissist can be experienced by the care-taker as inner despair or a contraction of guilt. With this, he could identify and entangle, separating himself from the resources around him. He might not be aware that also this despair and guilt is a shared field with the narcissist – which is entangling with the core drive behind his personality structure of ‘taking care’. The energy of guilt couples with accusation, as the hitherto caring individual begins accusing the world, humanity or God in an attempt to get free. At the stress frontier between freedom and entanglement, entanglement won. The good guy is even in a rage. This is what the poet Andrew Harvey meant when he said that we need to sometimes look into the dimensions of hell, but don’t look for too long, or we become it.
When a man stands on the podium under bright lights and broadcasts his despair in the form of rage towards the betrayal of the ‘other’, just about everyone is vulnerable. The most wounded will feel the rage awaken first-hand within themselves and could well turn to violence in order to express it (or get rid of it). When this suffering is intensified through the gender split and sexual humiliation, then the whole resonated with the rift between man and woman, and the bloody age-long power war between the sexes in the drive to determine who sets the flavor of unity.
The savior on the podium arrives, an open channel of rising rage. Mirror neurons fire without discernment between self and other. Reward chemicals flood the brain with the experience of strength and unity. The crowd experiences an addictive, temporary, collective liberation from fear, as they become the threat itself, with all its seeming power and glory.
Yet onlookers are also effected. Their mirror neurons are also firing. Perhaps free enough of the identification with anger, they don’t consciously board the ideology of rage. But instead, they experience the despair, the horror, and the nightmare of exclusion which is beneath the rage. They experience themselves as the target. With this, they could get locked in identification with form, moving into depression, a sense of hopelessness and an old, inner conviction that our world is doomed (condemnation/guilt).
In these times, the energy of despotism is rising again throughout our land. The rage of suffering is heard everywhere from the bloodied hills of ISIS through to the Brexit and the anti-splendour of the rise of such a phenomena as Donald Trump. Many have commented that history is moving in cycles and that we face another dark time of war and destruction. Seen in terms of epigenetic trauma – trauma inherited through the generations – this could well be true. The agony of both abuser and abused through two wars and a great depression has not yet been genetically liberated and brought to peace – partly due to intense victim-identification that introduces new faces of arrogant righteousness and polarization. We will address these collective epigenetic cycles in a future article.
“Staying free as awareness within the nightmare is the highest service we can offer.”
For now, the message of both the bright and dark side of mirror neurons is this: just because you experience feelings and emotions first-hand, even with a sense of full blown intimacy, don’t be fooled into believing that these privately belong to you. Your inner experience is inseparable from the environment and is composed of nervous phenomena that arise and pass through. All this passes through you, but it’s not who you are. Feelings and emotions are contractions in motion: they are phenomena in time and space. You are the source of time and space – which is by definition endless and infinite. Through not grasping and not pushing away, but rather resting in this source, the parietal system is able to evolve into its higher purpose, as an orchestrator and reflector of the and/and -formlessness and form, in which repression and denial is no longer a compulsion. Staying free as awareness within the nightmare is the highest service we can offer. This is the more evolved movement of nondiscriminatory mind and compassion through which we can find freedom from the historic cycles of despotism and despair.