Communication Currents

Exploring Mirror Neurons: Rethinking Performance and Communicative Processes

April 1, 2007
Theater & Performance

Exploring Mirror Neurons: Rethinking Performance and Communicative Processes  

A few years back, I was minding my own business while walking toward my home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, when for a split second I saw a large brown blur hurtling toward me. It turned out to be a fairly fast-moving sedan of some sort. In the split second before impact, my body took control and executed a sequence of movements that allowed me to roll up onto the hood, crack the windshield with only my left hand, and roll off onto my feet, still in stride. I had performed a series of movements that eerily mirrored actions similar to the hundreds of videogame characters I had spent countless hours wasting my time playing with and controlling. It was as if I was performing Simon Belmont from Castlevania, or Ryu Hyabusa from Ninja Gaiden. The more I thought about the accident, the more I wondered how my body was able to escape injury and perform such a complex sequence of movements without any conscious effort.

The discovery of mirror neurons in the brain of monkeys, and subsequently humans, in the late 1990s, has radically altered the field of neuroscience, and provides compelling arguments for shifting an understanding of how we control the actions of our bodies away from the power of conscious thought processes. As powerful a statement as “I think, therefore I am” may be, mirror neurons suggest that the performance of bodily processes are much more actively involved in the cultivation of the mind than Descartes could have ever realized. At the same time, mirror neurons force a reconsideration of what exactly constitutes a communicative experience. The form of communication that emerges from the physiological process of the firing of mirror neurons, pushes communication past a verbal or non-verbal understanding into the realm of embodied communication.

Mirror neurons are housed in an area of the brain inside the pre-motor cortex and act as filters for perceived actions. When we watch an individual perform an action, sensory information is fed into the perception motor units of the mirror neural net. The mirror neurons then map the perceived action and send the information to be stored inside of the pre-motor cortex. The mapped action is then called upon by the motor cortex whenever we execute the particular action.

There's another way of looking at this: When we observe someone performing an action, there is a concurrent activation of motor circuits by the mirror neurons that are also used by us when we perform similar actions. Even though we do not literally reproduce the observed action at the moment of observation, our motor system activates as if we were performing the same action being observed. Essentially, mirror neurons act as a storage facility for actions that we observe, while simultaneously disciplining or preparing our motor cortex for executing the action as if we had already performed the action many times over. By applying this theory to my accident narrative, I can understand my body as communicating with both the mirror neurons that mapped similar videogame maneuvers in the moment of the accident AND the maneuvers of the videogame character Ryu Hyabusa in the moment of playing the game.

The action that we perform through the firing of our mirror neurons is not a direct replication of the observed actions of the other individual; we perform a repetition of the observed action with a difference. We cannot, for instance, watch Derrek Lee hitting home runs for the Chicago Cubs over and over and expect to produce the same results in our own bodily performance. However, we can map the action of swinging the bat and execute our own swings through the firing of our mirror neurons. We repeat the observed actions with a difference—a fascinating way of rethinking what is meant by the term repeat performance.

Thus, the study of mirror neurons may provide a novel frame for making sense of communication experiences. Mirror neurons provide a compelling argument to expand our understanding of what it means to communicate with each other outside of conscious thought or intentionality. The performance of mirror neurons in the brain of the body, and the performance of the body that mirror neurons enact via their firing sequence, point toward rethinking communication as an embodied process, a process of the body communicating with itself through its own processes. It is a process that is not merely concerned with making sense of that which we are communicating verbally. Instead, sense is made when we correctly perform the mapped actions of other's behavior through the firing of our own mirror neurons and subsequent performance of our bodies. The communicative process is thereby extended far after the face-to-face encounter, into a murkier realm of chemical pathways and electric impulses of the brain and body.

At the same time that mirror neurons force a rethinking of communication, they also require a rethinking of the term performance. Mirror neurons perform in our brains. If they perform successfully, then we are able to execute mapped action. If they perform faultily, so do our bodies. Similarly, when we execute action sent to us through the mirror neural net, we are performing action that we have observed with a difference. We take the embodied performance of another human being and make it our own; we embody their performance through our own bodies and add a new spin to it. That new take on the other's performance might be imperceptible to onlookers, but the difference is there, waiting in the dark corners of our brain, ready to come out into the light.