My five year-old son was climbing a tree and got to about seven feet off the ground when he told me he wanted to jump off. I balked. “It looks far,” I said.
“I can do it,” he said.
“Won’t it hurt?”
“No,” he assured me. He jumped. His feet slapped the hard dirt, and my own soles dimly rang with the sting of the impact. Turns out, however, that I’m not preternaturally empathic; nor even merely an overly imaginative drama geek dad. Turns out, according to some of the latest research into what have been dubbed “Mirror Neurons”, I am a human being.
As reports Christian Keysers, Scientific Director of the Neuroimaging Center of the University Medical Center Groningen, the same neuron fires in a monkey’s brain when it grabs a peanut as when someone else grabs the peanut. Says Keyser:
This phenomenon is not restricted to physical movement. When someone taps my shoulder, say, my somatosensory cortex makes me feel the sensation. But simply seeing someone else being tapped activates the same area of my brain. If I cut my finger, my cingulate cortex and anterior insula will register the pain—and these areas also become active if I see you cut your finger. The vicarious representations are not quite as strong as those produced when we experience our own sensations, but we nevertheless feel a milder version of what the other person feels.
None of this is all that surprising to my fellow stage artists. We’ve known for millennia that we can get folks in the audience to reassuringly rub their hands just by chopping off some fake hands on stage. In such moments, everybody knows that nobody’s fooling anybody, and yet our bodies do get fooled despite our brains’ reassurances.
These brain circuits can keep us from seeing other individuals as something “out there.” Indeed, we are able to feel their actions, sensations, and emotions inside us, as if we were in their shoes. Others have become us. [emphasis Paul’s]…. These brain circuits thus blur the bright line between your experiences and mine. Our experiences fuse into the joint pool of knowledge that we call culture.
Dear Professor Keysers, my colleagues and I happily wish to inform you that we have been investigating these phenomena for some time. We call it theatre. Welcome to the ongoing experiment.