Got to love those mirror neurons

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Lately I’ve stopped using mirrors. They don’t make them the way they used to — somehow, they make you look older now. Life mirrors life, though. Doubles are showing up all over. There’s Martha Stewart and her double, Angela Merkel; John Boehnert / Nancy Pelosi, and their double, Abbott and Costello; Sarah Palin and double, Annie Oakley; Mitt Romney and his (dubious) double, Paul Ryan.

Lately I’ve stopped using mirrors. They don’t make them the way they used to — somehow, they make you look older now. Life mirrors life, though. Doubles are showing up all over. There’s Martha Stewart and her double, Angela Merkel; John Boehnert / Nancy Pelosi, and their double, Abbott and Costello; Sarah Palin and double, Annie Oakley; Mitt Romney and his (dubious) double, Paul Ryan.

Call them mirrors or doubles, life is filled with repeatables. That’s the excuse, anyway, for politicians’ crazy statements we hear nowadays — they’re just repeating what they heard from others of their party. Copycat políticos repeating the stale party line.

What’s showing their face are the mirror neuron brain cells. The same cells are activated in monkeys by their watching an action and performing that action. Since we humans are so monkey-like (one supposes), scientists see the same thing going on in our human brains, like when we “read” other people’s minds and feel empathy for them.

Why do sports fans feel so emotionally invested in the game, almost as if they were part of the game themselves? Brain imaging has shown that inside our heads we act out and imitate whatever activity we’re observing. Monkey see, monkey do.

Lots of traits and habits trace back to what we picked up — or didn’t — from our folks. Why is he a step behind his friends in social skills? Oh, that’s right, his dad spent his life working to stay alive and never had the time for the genteel side of life.

Children can gain mastery simply from watching, so they etch in their own brains a storehouse for emotion, for behavior and for how the world works. Surveys have shown that people who had strict, authoritarian parents preferred a strong, militaristic foreign policy — something they simply picked up from their parents.

Mentoring is a process often used in work relationships, but also in many other areas. The mentor tries to clone a duplicate copy of himself or herself in another. Through nurturing, friendship, or formal apprenticeship, one takes on the traits of the mentor. Those mirror neurons are at play, as one watches and then duplicates what the mentor does. My own mentors probably would never admit they were, so don’t ask.

Researchers have recently found that roommates, spouses, and co-workers can easily infect one another with their moods, especially the negative ones. Sadness, for instance, is easily passed along to others unconsciously, and the mirror neurons are at work again. So you hate the way Ralph combs his hair? I do, too. Wait — what?

In Islamic legal tradition, the Arabic term “taqlid” denotes blindly accepting statements without using reason to examine the evidence. It comes from the verb “qallada,” which means “to place a collar around the neck.” So the media, fashion, marketing, politics, religion, or other things, can lead you around by the collar when there is no recourse to reason. Of course, you’ve never seen that happen, right?

Philip K. Howard in TheAtlantic.com says that the most powerful force in American culture today is inertia. Things happen in a certain way because that’s the way they were yesterday, and from fear of offending special interests. In that case we might rename the mirror neurons and call them the neural morons, when they’re the culprits.

I personally never copy the words of others, for fear of plagiarism. To err is human, of course, and to forgive divine. But God helps those who help themselves, and fools rush in where angels fear to tread. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all the time. That’s why I never copy the words of others.

Sometimes, though, it helps to be a copycat. Just don’t start drinking milk from a dish on the floor. Your cat doesn’t want to be your mentor, anyway.

Tom Kozeny has worked as a teacher, counselor, and in pastoral ministry. He can be reached by e-mail to tko-z@sdc.org.