We come to know our own minds through our interactions with others.
As we welcome the neural reality of our interconnected lives, we can gain new clarity about who we are, what shapes us, and how we in turn can shape our lives.
Riding the Resonance Circuits
It’s folk wisdom that couples in long and happy relationships look more and more alike as the years go by. Peer closely at those old photographs, and you’ll see that the couples haven’t actually grown similar noses or chins. Instead, they have reflected each other’s expressions so frequently and so accurately that the hundreds of tiny muscle attachments to their skin have reshaped their faces to mirror their union. How this happens gives us a window on one of the most fascinating recent discoveries about the brain, and about how we come to “feel felt” by one another.
Some of what I’ll describe here is still speculative, but it can shed light on the most intimate ways we experience mindsight in our daily lives.
Neurons That Mirror Our Minds
In the mid-1990s, a group of Italian neuroscientists were studying the premotor area of a monkey’s cortex. They were using implanted electrodes to monitor individual neurons, and when the monkey ate a peanut, a certain electrode fired. No surprise there, that’s what they expected. But what happened next has changed the course of our insight into the mind. When the monkey simply watched one of the researchers eat a peanut, that same motor neuron fired. Even more startling: The researchers discovered that this happened only when the motion being observed was goal-directed. Somehow, the circuits they had discovered were activated only by an intentional act.
This mirror neuron system has since been identified in human beings and is now considered the root of empathy. Beginning from the perception of a basic behavioral intention, our more elaborated human prefrontal cortex enables us to map out the minds of others. Our brains use sensory information to create representations of others’ minds, just as they use sensory input to create images of the physical world. The key is that mirror neurons respond only to an act with intention, with a predictable sequence or sense of purpose. If I simply lift up my hand and wave it randomly, your mirror neurons will not respond. But if I carry out any act you can predict from experience, your mirror neurons will “figure out” what I intend to do before I do it. So when I lift up my hand with a cup in it, you can predict at a synaptic level that I intend to drink from the cup. Not only that, the mirror neurons in the premotor area of your frontal cortex will get you ready to drink as well.
We see an act and we ready ourselves to imitate it. At the simplest level, that’s why we get thirsty when others drink, and why we yawn when others yawn. At the most complex level, mirror neurons help us understand the nature of culture and how our shared behaviors bind us together, mind to mind. The internal maps created by mirror neurons are automatic, they do not require consciousness or effort. We are hardwired from birth to detect sequences and make maps in our brains of the internal state, the intentional stance, of other people. And this mirroring is “cross-modal”, it operates in all sensory channels, not just vision, so that a sound, a touch, a smell, can cue us to the internal state and intentions of another.
By embedding the mind of another into our own firing patterns, our mirror neurons may provide the foundation for our mindsight maps.
Now let’s take another step. Based on these sensory inputs, we can mirror not only the behavioral intentions of others, but also their emotional states. In other words, this is the way we not only imitate others’ behaviors but actually come to resonate with their feelings, the internal mental flow of their minds. We sense not only what action is coming next, but also the emotional energy that underlies the behavior. In developmental terms, if the behavioral patterns we see in our caregivers are straightforward, we can then map sequences with security, knowing what might happen next, embedding intentions of kindness and care, and so create in ourselves a mindsight lens that is focused and clear. If, on the other hand, we’ve had parents who are confusing and hard to “read,” our own sequencing circuits may create distorted maps.
So from our earliest days, the basic circuitry of mindsight can be laid down with a solid foundation, or created on shaky ground.
Knowing Me, Knowing You
I once organized an interdisciplinary think tank of researchers to explore how the mind might use the brain to perceive itself. One idea we discussed is that we make maps of intention using our cortically based mirror neurons and then transfer this information downward to our subcortical regions. A neural circuit called the insula seems to be the information superhighway between the mirror neurons and the limbic areas, which in turn send messages to the brainstem and the body proper. This is how we can come to resonate physiologically with others, how even our respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate can rise and fall in sync with another’s internal state.
These signals from our body, brainstem, and limbic areas then travel back up the insula to the middle prefrontal areas. I’ve come to call this set of circuits, from mirror neurons to subcortical regions, back up to the middle prefrontal areas, the “resonance circuits.” This is the pathway that connects us to one another. Notice what happens when you’re at a party with friends. If you approach a group that is laughing, you’ll probably find yourself smiling or chuckling even before you’ve heard the joke. Or perhaps you’ve gone to dinner with people who’ve suffered a recent loss. Without their saying anything, you may begin to sense a feeling of heaviness in your chest, a welling up in your throat, tears in your eyes. Scientists call this emotional contagion. The internal states of others, from joy and play to sadness and fear, directly affect our own state of mind. This contagion can even make us interpret unrelated events with a particular bias, so that, for example, after we’ve been around someone who is depressed we interpret someone else’s seriousness as sadness.
For therapists, it’s crucial to keep this bias in mind. Otherwise a prior session may shape our internal state so much that we aren’t open and receptive to the new person with whom we need to be resonating.
Our awareness of another person’s state of mind depends on how well we know our own. The insula brings the resonating state within us upward into the middle prefrontal cortex, where we make a map of our internal world. So we feel others’ feelings by actually feeling our own, we notice the belly fill with laughter at the party or with sadness at the funeral home. All of our subcortical data, our heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension, our limbic coloring of emotion, travels up the insula to inform the cortex of our state of mind. This is the main reason that people who are more aware of their bodies have been found to be more empathic.
The insula is the key: When we can sense our own internal state, the fundamental pathway for resonating with others is open as well.
The mind we first see in our development is the internal state of our caregiver. We coo and she smiles, we laugh and his face lights up. So we first know ourselves as reflected in the other. One of the most interesting ideas we discussed in our study group is that our resonance with others may actually precede our awareness of ourselves. Developmentally and evolutionarily, our modern self-awareness circuitry may be built upon the more ancient resonance circuits that root us in our social world.
How, then, do we discern who is “me” and who is “you”? The scientists in our group suggested that we may adjust the location and firing pattern of the prefrontal images to perceive our own mind. Increases in the registration of our own bodily sensations combined with a decrease in our mirror neuron response may help us know that these tears are mine, not yours, or that this anger is indeed from me, not from you. This may seem like a purely philosophical and theoretical question until you are in the midst of a marital conflict and find yourself arguing about who is the angry one, you or your spouse. And certainly, as a therapist, if I do not track the distinction between me and other, I can become flooded with my patients’ feelings, lose my ability to help, and also burn out quickly.
When resonance literally becomes mirroring, when we confuse me with you, then objectivity is lost. Resonance requires that we remain differentiated, that we know who we are, while also becoming linked. We let our own internal states be influenced by, but not become identical with, those of the other person.
It will take much more research to elucidate the exact way our mindsight maps make this distinction, but the basic issues are clear. The energy and information flow that we sense both in ourselves and in others rides the resonance circuits to enable mindsight.
As I consider the resonance circuits, two mind lessons stand out for me. One is that becoming open to our body’s states, the feelings in our heart, the sensations in our belly, the rhythm of our breathing, is a powerful source of knowledge. The insula flow that brings up this information and energy colors our cortical awareness, shaping how we reason and make decisions. We cannot successfully ignore or suppress these subcortical springs. Becoming open to them is a gateway to clear mindsight.
The second lesson is that relationships are woven into the fabric of our interior world. We come to know our own minds through our interactions with others. Our mirror neuron perceptions, and the resonance they create, act quickly and often outside of awareness. Mindsight permits us to invite these fast and automatic sources of our mental life into the theater of consciousness. As we welcome the neural reality of our interconnected lives, we can gain new clarity about who we are, what shapes us, and how we in turn can shape our lives.