I can tell you pretty much the exact moment my mirror neurons became overzealous. It was just over 8 years ago when I witnessed my daughter in a freak horse-riding accident where (**gore alert ** – skip to the next paragraph if sensitive) her leg got caught on a metal spike sticking out of a badly fitted stirrup. She was hanging off that stirrup upside down on a still-moving horse for more moments than I can bear to recollect before dropping to the filthy floor. A hand sized dirty gash at the top of her thigh was cut down to the muscle. As one of the first at the scene, I saw parts of her innards that I never wanted to have to witness and dealt with all the trauma she was in while the ambulance was called.
From that moment on I noticed something bizarre. Whether it was her or another person, an actual event of a mere reference to it in conversation, an injury experienced by another person, even just a grazed knee, would cause me to experience an intense electric shock symptom through my legs making my knees feel weak. I still have it, more fleeting yet fairly often, to this day; like an echo of the day I witnessed my daughter getting hurt. It was just the beginning of a whole range of electrical sensations that now inform my days in just so many ways; though more often than not, my interpretations lie on the side of guesswork. It has become a bewildering cacophony of sensations and, of course, life would be far simpler without it.
Of course, I was left wondering why this happened to me when it doesn’t seem to happen, to my knowledge, to every other person on the planet. I’ve sometimes mentioned it to others and received blank stares though, for some reason, my daughter herself seems to understand what I’m describing. In fact, if we all had this going on, life would become unbearable, although perhaps we would be far less prone to inflict harm on others since it would only ever hurt ourselves just as much.
When I read about mirror neurons, a couple of years later, it was a lightbulb moment. I already knew I was an empath…to a ridiculous degree, where I seem to instantaneously transfer what I witness to my own sensory cinema; and it doesn’t even have to be a human experience. Mistreatment of animals affects me very profoundly indeed and this led to the point where I could no longer bear to play any part in the slaughter of animals for food. In fact, as long as the afflicted thing bears at least a passing resemblance to sentient life-form, its enough for me to react. For instance, I never forget being in a taxi stuck in traffic and our car paused for a prolonged time next to a church with a door porch made up of two supporting statues, female figures cowered and with their arms raised above shoulders, to support the stone roof laid on their heads. I felt myself flinch as though an unbearable weight had come down on my own head and shoulders and had to look away, though the feeling of that terrible weight bearing down has never left me when I think back to it.
“The mirroring system helps us in understanding our existential condition and our involvement with others. It shows that we are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another.” (Marco Lacobini, a UCLA neuroscientist.)
I also knew I had had synesthesia all of my life, though its label eluded me until I was an adult. However, mirror-touch synaesthesia, which this is, had never insinuated before and made sense of the more bizarre experiences I have every day. Such experiences are far more emphatic and life-affecting for me than those that I have relating to interactions between colours, sounds, words and numbers, though I have those too. Yet I have never tended to regard any of these experiences as “maladaptive” or faulty, as some scientists would descrbe them; choosing, rather, to explore them as a special gift that I have.
So I think its fair to say that what I am talking about in this post has more to do with what I know as mirror-touch synaesthesia than what neuroscientists are delving into with the aim of learning more about so-called mirror neurons. I make this distinction because, in the those cases, science is focussed primarily on mirror neurons that use visual cues from watching the behaviour of others or auditory cues from hearing an action. What I refer to here is a response that myself and others with mirror-touch synaesthesia seem to have to sensory experiences outside of the normal range; you could say, extra-sensory experiences such as picking up on people’s unexpressed thoughts and emotions, what they are going through as a collective or a great distance away. The data that feeds these responses can be remote and yet, the more we tune into it, the more convinced we become that it is the experiences of “others” that is feeding the sensations we are randomly receiving. This is a realm of experience that tends to make scientists uncomfortable yet, for those of us who are empathic, we gather data about such experience every day of our lives, which can make living in range of other humans an “interesting” experience. Some of those few scientists that are prepared to explore into this realm have drawn comparisons between those who have synaesthsia, electro-sensitivity and near death experiences; the latter, apparently, being prone to experiencing insense electrical energies moving through their bodied (psychologist Kenneth Ring, quoted by Michael Jawer in “The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion”). I most certainly have the first two on this list but have not, to my knowledge, had the latter though, as I have written about before, the whole span of the last few years’ health issues has felt like many little deaths, some of which dramatically altered my perception.
In fact mirror neurons made sense of a lot of things for me. They explained what this mechanism was by which one person not only empaths what another is going through but feels it as though it is simultaneously happening to them. It also made sense of why life in crowds or hearing about a lot of other people’s “stuff”, even just living in proximity to people who endure constant stress (how I dislike the feeling of rush hour traffic past my house…), could sometimes feel overbearing, even traumatising. But why did some people have more active mirror neurons than others? This remained the mystery, and I felt sure it had some very profound connection with chronic pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia and neuralgia. Certainly, in parallel with my own mirror responses dialling up, my health issues around pain had become more intense and bizarre over recent years, to where I was responding not only to local weather but to “space” weather, for instance, or could feel things happening on the other side of the world before they even became news, in my TV-less life. I found I had to avoid over-wrought or even unconscious people due to the unpleasant sensations that would penetrate my awareness and lower my tone. I would feel all the post event anticlimax of occassions such as Christmas and New Year that I underplay or ignore (choosing not to take part in any of the monstrous crank-up that consumerism encourages around these events), the whole tirade of emotion around sports events (for teams I don’t follow), the monday blues (that should have no impact on my unstructured life working from home)… So was I feeling any of these events for myself, or was I empathing other people’s reactions to them, like a wave of neighbourly emotions hitting my own nervous system? Indeed, was I feeling geomagnetic storms and such way-out phenomenon for myself or their impact on a populace that is largely so disengaged from the rhythms of nature, in their own technology-generated GM bubble, that these events have to keep knocking ever louder on their door?
“The neural mechanism is involuntary, with it we don’t have to think about what other people are doing or feeling, we simply know.” (Vittorio Gallese, a neurophysiologist in the Parma lab that first discovered the trait.)
Yet (perhaps partly to make me feel better about this profound experiential annoyance), I also tended to regard this as an evolved or “higher” trait; one we were all headed towards developing in order to remind us who we are and how we are all connected. So I recoiled when I read, Michael A Jawer’s opinion, in “The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion: How Feelings Link the Brain, the Body, and the Sixth Sense”, that “the mirror neurons are probably not the home of deep-seated feeling. Instead they are a sort of focusing device – binoculars, if you will – that trains our attention on other people”. He goes on to suggest that they are probably quite reliant on learned observations…of what we have noticed about other people and how they responded, in a certain context, in the past…so, when we see that circumstance again, we trigger an expectation in ourselves that this is how they are again feeling.
This does not feel consistent with the degree to which I feel extraneous sensations to my own, even at times when I am not even aware of a circumstance or context with my mind (since I cannot necessarily see of hear the person or people I am atuning to). An example is feeling massive waves of a particular emotion prior to hearing, second-hand, what just happened to some other people (say, a shooting or other tragic event announced on the news). So, how come I felt that emotion as news got out yet before I had heard the news for myself? This happened, most memorably for me, on the night of the terrorist attack on Paris when I had a most distinct and agonising series of physical reactions at the same time as it was being reported across the media, though I only heard the news for myself the following day. What is particular about that attack is that I know the place pretty well whereas I have no geographical context for other such tragedies in, say, America having never been.
Sometimes these are circumstances which have no relatable human context to me, having never experienced them myself (addressing Jawer’s theory), yet I feel the reaction of them in my nervous system as sensations that feel consistent with the event (a whole range that could include gut-wrenching sensations or nausea, heart palpitations, overwhelming sadness, grief or low mood, various aches and pains that come out of the blue, feelings of profound uneasiness etc). Due to this, I can relate to the sorrow/horror/loss in these contexts all the more, having felt them so active in my own neurology, which makes them somewhat more vivid than second-hand reporting would have been. Thus I find some small yet undeniable version of relatabilty with humans I have never met, without (thankfully) having to have the experiences they have been through because, yes, my attention is caught more viscerally than it might otherwise have been; like some sort of super-sensory cinema experience. I can’t help feel that, in Jawer’s theory, mirror neurons are being trivialised as some sort of primitive, survival-based response, allowing us to quickly surmise how those around us might be about to respond to a circumstance, to aid us in choosing our own next most culturally-appropriate response (crying, not laughing, when someone has sad news, for instance), whereas I feel that they are much more than a useful pre-emptive tool.
So I let all this lie dormant in my mind for day or two after reading Jawer’s book, which had surprised me somewhat. There’s no getting around the fact that living with overzealous mirror neurons could be perceived as a problem underlying many of my health issues but I had allowed myself to remain optimistic by believing that I was going through an adjustment phase on the way to evolving into a better-feeling place, developing this empathic skillset. Now, I was forced to consider, were my overzealous mirror neurons just a sign of me being “too” sensitive; had I fallen-back on some near-useless, primitive trait that I should be working to put back in its box? Yet, in my view, we could all use being more empathic than we currently are; it could cease wars, stop abuse, put an end to blood sport and torture overnight. In that light, is a “primitive” level of empathy necessarily a bad thing? Haven’t we become so sophisticated that we could feasibly torture and stress each other to oblivion, the way things currently are?
This topic came into my mind once more in the early dawn of a sleepless night and suddenly it seemed quite obvious to me that this was, indeed, a remnant of the way human beings were before they lost their innocence; you could say, what was a positive aspect of being more primitive. This was in the very beginning, when cave drawings show that, to them, the physical and spiritual worlds were as one, the animal kingdom and natural world a seamless extension of their own psyche, the dream world to which they retreated for deeper understanding of the physical world a mere extension of their daily lives. This was before the two brain hemispheres fragmented so distinctly as to become, in so many ways, the opposition to each other. I tend to regard that evolutionary stage as “the garden of Eden” moment, when too much information (or the quest for it) threw us out of the “garden” of our fundamental sense of belonging to this world; a world where we had, until then, lived in blissful ignorance of any other state except one where we were part of every kind of experience that there is, both within and without ourselves, in a far vaster sense of being “whole”than we now understand as such tightly packaged individuals. In a sense, we thew ourselves out of our natural home and became refugees in another perception of reality; no longer at one with our natural surroundings and the gentle custodians of it but fighting back against it, claiming ownership of it, carving it up, drawing on all its resources way beyond our own personal needs in pursuit of these new man-made concepts we had, such as “power” and “wealth”. We began abusing it (and each other) and operating, in all our pursuits, from an assumption of gross lack…leading to commerce and war, slavery and sense of “alien-other” as a means to keeping this machine turning; which relied utterly on perpetuating a belief that we are all separate from one another, fighting for survival and concerned only with ourselves. At that point, our fellow human beings became, necessarily, a separate consideration from ourselves…and this mirror trait an almighty inconvenience, to be over-ridden or phased out.
So what if this trait is both primitive and evolutionary at the same time; one to which we are destined to return as the magic flip-switch (goodness knows we need one) to stop us in our tracks and make us see that we are not enemies here; we are all family. Perhaps we are destined to dust-off this mirror trait and up-cycle it to a new level of use; one where we return to a collective remembrance of what we once left behind, having integrated all we learned on our reconnaissance into the darkness of believing we were just fragments in a world full of shortcomings. Like a profound moment of coming back into wholeness, it would be as though we all took off our masks and saw in the face of every “other” our own eyes looking back at us as though in a mirror.
Yet, although this sound all good and well, what about all the pain for those in transition. To flip back into this mirror trait all at once would be like when you put your headphones back on before remembering to turn down the volume dial – BOOM – what we can tolerate at a safe distance is a very different matter when it comes home to roost. What about how unthinkable it would be to feel all the pain of others right here, right now in our history when so many of those others are going through torturous pain, stress and terrible fear day and night. When even the every-day world outside our windows is fraught with stresses and overwhelm and, often, too much going on for even one person to deal with, let alone another person taking all that on in addition to their own load, and then the next person’s load and the one after that. Imagine how overwhelmed we would all be if, like our forebears, we intuited each other’s pain like a telepathy and felt it in very literal terms. The combined pain of how we are living right now would be intolerable; it’s too soon for us to open up that experiential potential and yet, necessarily, it has to start somewhere, with someone, in order for the wave of realisation to catch on…that we are, indeed, all connected.
The reality is that we have created a world that is already far too overstimulating and overwrought for many individuals to cope with; they feel as though they have the world on their backs day and night from the way we are utterly bombard with information and a sense of personal responsibility. What we take into our personal experience zone, from internet, news, television and more, in just one week, is more than the average person had to deal with, experientially, in a whole lifetime little over a hundred years ago. Our trauma is like a jack-in-a-box let out of that box…that won’t ever fit back under that lid, try as we might to push it down.
Because of this, those of us who are dusting down our mirror neurons are the walking wounded of an era in transition. We are falling over by the wayside in a heap of chronic illnesses before we can even get very far on this evolutionary path. The result is that many people get so far and then opt to numb down their experiences again, whichever way they can; falling back to sleep under the influence of drink, drugs and medications, frenetic lifestyles and consumerism, too much television, work or other distractions and so many addictions…basically, whatever they can get their hands on to anesthesise the pain.
So what’s the solution, how do we make feeling other’s stuff all right and even of benefit to our own status as a human being? How on earth can it be flipped into a positive and to where it can even help us to help others through this mire so we can collectively grow as a species? Like walking across hot coals, how do we get to the point when we can tolerate the pain of the crossing, showing others how it can be done…and that it’s exhilarating?
It’s so interesting to me that my own mirror-awakening began on the back of the maternal urge. If I hadn’t felt such a strong attachment to my daughter, one that most mothers have to their offspring (though perhaps mine was all the stronger and more fierce, having been through extremely difficult times during pregnancy and when she was little, then several years as a single parent) that breakthrough experience may not have happened. This “thing” is a feminine trait, it speaks of the sacred feminine aspect coming back into the human experience realm to have its say. And notice how the words fierce and strong come up; there is nothing more fierce, strong or formidable than a lioness in charge of her cubs. There is no complacency in it; this is a force, born of the earth, that steps in and speaks out when abuse or unfairness occur, when weakness is taken advantage of, when life-force is quashed in the name of material gain, when separation and lack try to assert themselves upon a reality that we know to be universal and complete. It roars when the planet is being taken for a ride, when resources are being claimed under pretences at ownership and when our values become so topsy-turvy that all the vulnerable fall through the cracks of our messed-up priorities. When we harness the maternal instinct as a universal language, we already know we can move mountains.
This fiercely feminine aspect is a very necessary force right now, as I’m seeing across all of my many interests. The sheer depth of feeling underlying this feminine impulse is a rocket-launcher, I know that too. But I also have to bear in mind that “do no harm” is its mantra; that is, no harm to other…or to me. I know that, in order to do what I’m here to do, I need to find that volume dial in order to turn down what I experience from the field of the collective, or my own body won’t be here any more, or in any physical state, to get on and do these things. Its one thing to be aware of what others are going through but another entirely to feel it so intensely that you are in a constant state of feeling over-wrought or so physically challenged you are down on your knees.
That dial, I know, is within, not without. I find it, counter-logical as that sounds, in my own already peaceful soul not “out there” where all the volume is. There is a subtle but important difference to being aware of so much pain via my consciousness compared with taking it in at the physical level that engages the vagus nerve, and all its tributaries of reaction, as the deliverer of a body-wide alarm-call. As I wrote about before, the vagus nerve is a two-way street between the physical and spiritual aspects of the human being. Via higher consciousness, it can inform the body how to react just as much as the various alarms going off in and around that body can try to tell it what panic buttons to press around the nervous system. When synchronicity and sameness become the currency of the vagus nerve rather than separation and fear of “other”, it’s as though those mirror neurons receive a somewhat different brief from the vagus control room…they focus on what is positive about our interconnectedness over what feels so overwhelming.
Part of this is making the conscious choice between “mine” or “not mine” as feelings come washing in on the tide. The more we exercise this choice-muscle, the more the mirror aspect of us gains confidence about sharing what is going on in our broader field of experience without expecting us to reach melt-down point. Just because a wave of national sorrow at the loss of the international football match or an election result might come into me as a distinctly subdued, lower-vibrational feeling or even agitation, for instance, I don’t need to let that affect my day or influence how I am feeling at my core. Around late night pubs and bars, I feel the inevitable wave of inebriation like I have had too many drinks myself, with its thinly disguised layer of self-loathing, pain or vulnerability just beneath the party-vibe; so I seldom choose to go out to these places and I hold my conscious reactions intact if I do. In the more serious matters, I find my context within humanity as a whole when one community’s tragedy, wherever that happens to be in the world, impacts me in a very physical, relatable sense that makes me care very deeply about what happens to this planet as a whole. It keeps me real and it keeps me giving a damn; and yet I can also mitigate how overwhelming those sensations are by doing as I would do for my own rockier-moments; holding a space of stillness and calm at my heart-core whilst remaining in a place of love and the kind of optimism that transcends all tragedy. The more I achieve this, against the tidal wave of feeling so much, the more I feel like I am doing good-work for the collective.
There’s much more to it than that but developing consciousness is the key, being its own resource package and teacher to those who get over their fear of “feeling too much” to dare to go there. I don’t have all the answers to share here; not because those answers don’t exist but because they wait for you to find them via your own journey into awakened consciousness. There is no simple strategy to transforming this kind of pain except to know that it can be transformed and is waiting for you to know this; the very step you are prepared to take towards it being the journey that will show you all you ever need to know about your role as someone making a subtle yet important difference to the whole. It’s all too easy to argue “but I already feel way more than other people; why would I want to open up to feel any more than that?” It takes a certain kind of faith to just go there anyway, trusting that, beyond the current paradigm of pain, there is another layer of experience that will open up like a brand new vista on the horizon. The more of us who dare, the closer we get to a collectively awakened state where we really don’t mind tuning into each other since the abrasiveness of it is phased away.
So I dare to go there, through the pain (not avoiding or tranquillising it but seeking to allow it to be other than it might initially seem to be) even though that pain, which most others don’t seem to register or admit to, sometimes feels as though it is about to take me beyond my limit. Yet I find I want to exercise these mirror neurons rather then let them wither on the bough (scientists believe that they only thrive when used repeatedly; in others it’s as though the mirrors might be broken, or at the very least, dormant) because, instinctively, it feels important to be as awake to experience as I can be. I go there because I must see what lies beyond the apparent barrier of “too much sensation” this time around; within life, not at its end point when all things, inevitably come back together to become clear and whole at last. As a synaesthete and empath, I came pre-wired for maximum sensation and I feel compelled to run with this opportunity, to see who I might become at the end of the experiment in immersion.
Does that include, possibly, feeling what others aren’t acknowledging for themselves? Am I feeling their unaddressed trauma, their overindulgence, their overwhelmed physical reactions to the relentless and unbalanced use of technologies way beyond what I put my own body through? Is it not my own unbalanced state but that of so many others that continue to live out of sync with nature that I continue to feel as though I have yet another problem to tackle? Maybe. Perhaps this is why me, and so many others who have done the work, continue to struggle with these things in ways that make no logical sense. Perhaps the very test of it is to resist the urge to run away and hide from more sensations and to feel it all, know from whence it is coming, and love everything and everyone anyway….whilst always keeping an eye out for the synchronistic and relatable in the form of other souls, which is when it all feels so worth it. Connectivity is its own reward when it feels so intune that its as though we have met soul mates across vast swathes of different circumstances and massive geographical distance.
This takes drawing on all my resources as a conscious being and working on those still, as an absolute priority, for my own health and wholeness. It means taking the reins of my physical body in order to insist that it not over-react; in which task I have the vagus nerve on my side since it can be persuaded to function, just as effectively, under the lead of higher consciousness and the more subtle senses, as it can tune into all the relentless sensory data that keeps hammering it from our material world. Every triumph of inner wellbeing, over and above what could have been a moment for caving-in beneath “too much” sensation to be borne, is a step forwards and I diligently log this in the place where I focus on how far I have come, not how stuck I am. Then, trusting as I do in the roll-out of this upgraded mirror trait in more and more people, which I am especially perceiving amongst the younger generation who express through social media (which is like an empathic training ground…shared responses rolling out as quickly as waves across an ocean), I know that they will find, in those like me, a model of ways to cope with feeling more than we have allowed through our fragile yet not so pathetic nervous systems for a very long time.
Together, we are becoming more robust and I suspect the reawakening of the mirror neurone is a signal that we are descaling our furred up neurology in readiness for a bigger experience of all that it means to be human; which is a far less isolated, self-interested, muffled-up-to the ears experience than we have long tended to believe. That’s when this mirror trait becomes the engine room of our collective evolution since it allows shared responses to roll out and spread like wild-fire; delivered across our species in no time at all, for the upgrade of all our experiences all at once. You might say, it would mark a massive collective awakening, one that could alter the core fixations, motivations and priorities of the world literally overnight, no convoluted logistics required.
For much more on the vagus nerve, see my earlier post The vagus nerve: leading us back to our health
Also related (on the theme of powerful maternal impulses and the death experience…in this case, combined…serving as a tool of awakening) Death of a loved one and an awakening layer of perception