Last night I was watching a suspense movie with a typical good guy – bad guy plot. When the good guy was in danger of being found and killed, I noticed my heart racing and I was barely breathing. As soon as I realised this, I got up and walked away (moving helps the discharge of energy coursing through my body). I made myself a hot drink (comforting), and read a few pages in a feel-good book (shifting my focus). I disconnected from the story and did not stick around to see the ending. My body and my nervous system are more important to me than getting caught up in a drama story.
Mirror neurons may cause us to experience what others are experiencing – just by observing
You’re walking through a park when out of nowhere, the man in front of you gets smacked by an errant Frisbee. Automatically, you recoil in sympathy. Or you’re watching a race, and you feel your own heart racing with excitement as the runners vie to cross the finish line first. Or you see a woman sniff some unfamiliar food and wrinkle her nose in disgust. Suddenly, your own stomach turns at the thought of the meal.
Many researchers believe that a discovery called mirror neurons might provide a neuroscience-based answer to those questions. Basically a mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when one acts and when one observes the same action performed by the other. In other words, the neuron mirrors the behavior of the other, as though the observer was actually having the experience.
As relational beings we require mirror neurons
While the function of the mirror system is a subject of much speculation, many researchers suggest that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. Some researchers also speculate that mirror systems may simulate observed actions, while others relate mirror neurons to language abilities. Mirror neuron systems in the human brain may help us understand the actions and intentions of other people. In addition, mirror neurons may be the basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy.
Negative affects of mirror neurons
I have not come across any study or suggestion that when our mirror neurons fire in response to observing a stressful / life threatening situation, our own autonomic nervous system is preparing us for survival. Stress chemicals such as adrenalin and cortisol are released in the brain, suppressing cognitive, digestive, and immune functioning. Energy is redirected to the heart and areas of the body preparing it to take action. When that action is never executed – such as when we sit through a movie, the survival energy may not get discharged.
For people who are experiencing stress and anxiety, this adds to the load that their bodies are already coping with.
When we are attuned to our body’s moment-to-moment responses (to our external and internal environments), and we take appropriate action to settle our nervous systems, we can restore balance and ultimately improve our very health and well-being.