SECOND HAND SMOKE: Mirror Neurons and their reflections.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on October 24, 2010

The first time I read about mirror neurons I felt great excitement. Here, finally, was a scientific team of researchers ( 2007-Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia, Frances Anderson) confirming that we are relational beings, that we read each other automatically, unconsciously and at the neurological level. Wow. Science catching up to psychoanalytic theory, Freud would be ecstatic! This is science, trying to pinpoint the mechanism in our brains responsible for inter-subjectivity.  This brand of neuro-science is all about the relationship that we have to one another, and a special set of neurons, now identified and called mirror neurons, that reflect the behavior, emotional state and feelings of the other back to us, and in turn, help us to develop a sensitive attunement to the other. Wow. One scientist is so impressed with the ability of these neurons to reflect back sensations, emotions and feelings, from one person to the other, that he would have called them the empathy (or Gandhi) neurons! (see Ramachandran).

You can see how this would have all kinds of implications for us humans. And for those of us that are interested in human behavior and human motivation. Let us consider the implications of these neurons together.

First, mirror neurons are located in the frontal lobes, the same place that is responsible for motor commands. Motor neurons respond when we perform an action. Apparently, they also respond when we watch another person perform an action. That is because mirror neurons take in and reflect the others’ movement or action back to us. They respond to movement, touch and sight. Science tells us that mirror neurons must be involved in imitative and emulative behavior, which requires that one adopt the other person’s point of view. There are also mirror neurons for touch that activate the somato-sensory cortex, so that when someone touches your hand, a neuron in the sensory part of your brain fires. It now appears that, the same neuron will fire when you watch another person being touched- ergo the empathy neuron! Vision, movement and touch all seem to activate mirror neurons in our brain.

Second, mirror neurons seem to bypass cognitive function (i.e. thinking and language) instead, they initiate a neuronal dialogue with the other, thus linking us together through a mutual experience. Mirror neurons provide a specific link through which we have knowledge of the other, both when we observe the action and when we perform the same action. They provide a mirroring capacity for shared experience, which is neurologically based. Essentially our nervous system is automatically wired to respond to the other. It seems to me that this new neuro-science is attempting to locate a mechanism of the mind, which is built on many of the tenets of interpersonal and relational psychology.

Furthermore, the Italian group of scientists at Parma University, think that we are predisposed to be “good”, precisely because we are wired to, and feel  (empathize) what the other person feels (Rizzolatti on Charlie Rose) .  Think about this: we have a natural, biological link to understand experientially the emotional state of the other.  We are social beings and as such, we learn to read others early and quickly. Mirror neurons appear to be the cells that allow us to read the other and share their experience. They seem to account for much of our interpersonal learning.

So if we are predisposed to be good, why would we want to feel anything that is not so good? As psychoanalysts we know that human behavior and motivation is complex and multi-determined. We look both to the personal history of a patient, as well as the social and cultural context. Both nature and nurture. Indeed, much of what becomes our way of being in the world begins with what we learn in our parental lap through reinforcement and imitation. Mirror imaging scientists agree with the complexity of human behavior, and feel that much (but not all) of human behavior is imitative and culture bound. Add to this their discovery of mirror neurons, and we have a neurological system, which helps us to predict and affect the behavior of others. Mirror neurons are apparently involved in recognizing behavior and intention. They provide the link between the what (action) and the why (reason). All of which is a pre-requisite for empathic behavior underlying many, if not most, of our relationships. This is a highly sophisticated system of neurons, which is still being studied in human beings. It appears to be lacking and/or greatly reduced in autistic individuals, who have difficulty understanding others’ feelings and their behavioral intention.

This makes sense from a psychological point of view: we learn about our feelings, our thoughts and our actions and interactions within a relational matrix. It now appears that we are biologically wired to do so. Mirror neurons then, have serious implications for the way attachment develops between mother and child, and for the way that our relationship with others turns out. They suggest that problematic behavior may in turn elicit more of the same.

These studies got me thinking about the emotional difficulties that people struggle with daily in my office. Does the partner or parent or child of a depressed, anxious or angry individual find themselves the victims of second hand smoke? Slowly and over time, inhaling and responding to the emotional context around them?  Having it become part of the architecture of their psyche? When I think of a patient who described her mothers’ depression as the oxygen she breathed in childhood and, necessarily inhaled, making it the very bedrock of her own character, I think the answer must be yes. My patient came up with the idea of her depression being like second hand smoke: not hers, but somehow necessary to her being.  The science behind mirror neurons would suggest that nurture has powerful repercussions on nature. As a psychoanalyst I could not agree more.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Zelnick October 29, 2010 at 10:50 AM

I’m curious to hear what you might say about the variety of responses people have to the experience of inhaling the second hand smoke of depressed or otherwise troubled “smoker” parents. We encounter many people who, despite the repeated and often early exposure, tolerate the toxins of their familial smoke better than others. I don’t know if the motor neuron discovery would help us here, but I think that the phenomenology of resilience, resistance to relational toxins, and the capacity to inhale new and different relationships all speak to a very complex psychological and biological system.
Thank you for your evocative writing.


Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. October 30, 2010 at 3:38 PM

You are so right Larry. What is exciting about mirror neurons is that they confirm our relationality at a neurological level. I would agree with you about the complexities of human behavior and interaction, including our resilience, and resistance to relational toxins. When it comes to the question of why some people fare better than others I think we have to engage with a theory of mind that allows for individual differences based on personal history, genetics, and the social and cultural context. It is precisely what I find fascinating about psychoanalysis.


trisha coburn October 28, 2010 at 8:28 PM

This is so interesting! Thank you for spending time educating all of us. I love the idea of mirror neurons. so does this mean if we surround ourselves with sensitive, kind and empathic people all the time our mirror neurons will flourish and grow? If we work to eliminate negative people from our lives could we develop a deeper self love and respect for ourselves and see this in others? would standing in front of a mirror and speaking positive affirmations to ourselves boot more growth? have you heard about dendrites? is this similar or a different part of the brain? always grateful!!


Rande October 25, 2010 at 5:54 PM

I found this fascinating!!


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