Mirroring Desires

beanBagsIt’s no surprise to be told that neurons fire inside your brain when you decide to pick up a banana and again when you actually pick up the banana. What might surprise some people is to be told that exactly the same neurons fire when you see somebody else reach for a banana and then pick it up. This was not the kind of thing neuroscientists were looking for or expecting to find. Like many of the most significant scientific discoveries, this one was the result of serendipity. An experimenter who was analyzing the firing of neurons in a macaque monkey left the probes in its brain while taking a short break to have a snack. When he picked up a banana, the monkey’s neurons fired the same neurons that fired when the monkey picked up a banana. So began the following up of an exciting discovery.

The prime importance here is the firing of neurons based on intention. The neurons don’t wait until somebody actually picks up the banana. All it takes is for somebody to reach for the banana in such a way as to convey the intention of picking it up. If a person draws the hand away at the last second or tries to pick it up and drops it, the same neurons have fired. However, show a cartoon of a stick figure reaching for a banana and these neurons do not fire. The action has been portrayed but the live intention has not. Scientists call the neurons that fire under these circumstances “mirror neurons” because the neurons are mirroring the displayed intentional behavior.

This discovery seems to confirm, or at least add credence to, René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire, the notion that we imitate the desires of other people, often at a pre-conscious level.  (See Human See, Human Want) As I think about this exciting discovery, I would have to say that this neuronal mirroring of others’ intention does not, in itself, indicate imitating desire, but it does indicate very strongly that we automatically resonate with the intentions of other people at a deep physiological level, and these intentions are grounded in desire. Far from being individual blocks of personality shooting personal desires out at the world, our desires are wired in our bodies to resonate with the desires of others and vice versa. Our mirror neurons make sure that we live in a web of personal desires surrounding us.

Mirror neurons build a subtle and deep connection between all of us. We live in the midst of these connections whether we like it or not and these connections also connect us to God who created us, mirror neurons and all.

(Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni is an accessible and absorbing account of the discovery and ramifications of this exciting discovery.)

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2 thoughts on “Mirroring Desires

  1. Very succinctly and nicely put, Andrew, especially the last two paragraphs. Mirror neurons do indicate “a subtle and deep connection between all of us.”

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