Our frontal lobes are the home of the human ability to empathize with, and feel compassion for, other people. But there’s a particular area of the frontal lobes, called ‘mirror neurons’ that are crucial for developing our ability to empathise, imitate, synchronise our behavior with others, and to communicate.
(All these things are malfunctioning, in some way, when someone gets diagnosed as having a personality disorder.)
Mirror Neurons were discovered in an experiment done in 1994 by a group of Italian scientists. (G. Rizzolatti and L. Craighero ‘The Mirror Neuron System’, Annual Review of Neuroscience 27 (2004).
Writing in The Body Keeps the Score, author Bessel Van Der Kolk explains that: “One writer compared mirror neurons to ‘neural WiFi’ – we pick up not only another person’s movements but their emotional state and intentions as well.”
When the people we’re mirroring are healthy, happy, upbeat etc, that’s great. When they’re not, the mirror neurons are the ones that pick up on their negativity and bad character traits like anger, depression and self-hatred etc.
How mirror neurons are connected to personality disorders
When people aren’t being ‘mirrored’ or truly seen by others, and treated as though their needs, concerns and desires don’t count for anything, one of two things typically happens: either their mirror neurons never really activate, leaving them with a chronic lack of empathy and compassion for others (because they can’t feel them, or pick up on how the people are genuinely feeling.)
AND / OR they are overwhelmed by other people’s negative emotional states, and find it very difficult to put in the necessary barriers and boundaries required to keep other people’s negative moods out of their own headspace.
The people in the second category often struggle greatly with difficult emotional states, without realizing that the emotions they are feeling aren’t actually they’re own – they are picking up someone else’s bad mood via their mirror neurons.
(In case you were wondering, YES, this is all directly linked to how people develop so-called ‘personality disorders’. The first group lack compassion and empathy for others, which are the hallmarks of things like Narcissistic Personality Disorder and ASPD; the second group are overwhelmed with other people's emotions, making them prime candidates for a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis, or 'schizo' label.)
Social relationships can impact our mental health
Now, our body viscerally reacts to the voices and faces of the people we’re spending time with. Even subtle changes in someone’s tone of voice, body language, or facial expression can trigger-off some severe physiological reactions in us.
To put this another way, social relationships, or how people relate to us, can have a HUGE impact on our mental health, via the physiological reactions they trigger in us with even the subtlest shift in expression, tone or body language. Our body picks up immediately the physical cues we are being sent by others, so we can quickly ascertain at the ‘gut’ level if someone is comfortable, threatening, scared, angry, welcoming etc.
To quote Van Der Kolk again: “Our mirror neurons register their inner experience and our own bodies make internal adjustments to whatever we notice.”
Our conscious mind often focusses in on the actual words that are being said, but our bodies are picking up a whole bunch of clues at the subconscious level that tells us what’s really going on. So if you feel uncomfortable around a certain person, it’s not all in your mind. On some level, you’re registering that this person is suspicious, threatening, frightened, difficult, or ‘unhappy’ on some level, and you begin to mirror that unease back at them.
What happens when you’re mirroring a disturbed parent?
Mirror neurons are operational and start picking up external signals immediately after birth – researchers have found them active even in 6 hour old babies.
When parents and babies are in sync emotionally, they’re also in sync physically – and vice versa. Van der Kolk explains that: “Babies can’t regulate their own emotional states, much less the changes in heart rate, hormone levels, and nervous system activity that accompany emotions.”
So when the parent is synchronized with their baby, and mirroring back their need for reassurance, calming, feeling safe, the baby mimics the physiology and emotional reactions of their parent. When this is disrupted, the first place it shows up is in the baby’s physiology – leading to disturbed sleep, disturbed eating patterns, ‘colic’ and general crying and unease.
But when the baby is NOT being mirrored, or given attention in that calm, reassuring way? Then the baby is being conditioned to believe that nothing they can do will bring the help, attention or caring they need, regardless of what they do to try to change things (the infamous ‘sense of agency’).
These babies are effectively being conditioned to give up, when they hit obstacles, stress and challenges later on in life. (Again, this is directly linked with the ‘FREEZE’ response that causes feelings of clinical depression.)
A quick way to tell if your mirror neurons are functioning OK
When your mirror neurons are healthy and functioning, when someone makes direct eye contact, the pre-frontal cortex starts the assessment process of the person who is looking at you, and then your mirror neurons kick in to assess what sort of interaction this person probably presents to you – friendly or aggressive, suspicious or reassuring, loving or angry etc.
(Mirror neurons pick up the intentions of other people, and can act as a very accurate ‘early warning system’ when we don’t allow our social programming, and fears about being ‘rude’, turn them off).
When people have severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), brain scanning experiments showed that their prefrontal cortexes don’t activate when someone looks directly at them – which is the part of the brain responsible for social engagement.
Instead, people with PTSD / off-line mirror neurons will look away instead, and go straight into an emotional ‘fight or flight’ response to being seen. This is often why, to quote Van Der Kolk for the last time: “Many traumatized people feel chronically out of sync with the people around them’.
It’s very hard to feel like you fit in, and to overcome your innate feelings of loneliness and isolation when even meeting someone’s gaze can potentially throw you into a ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response.
This is also a big part of why so many people today feel socially anxious, and I hope to tell you more about this when I return to this topic again, in future posts.