So we know from last post that the mirror system contributes to our social skill of reading another’s intention. Most researchers frame their studies of this theoretically as contributing to cooperation and joint activity and that is fine as far as it goes, but I also think that mirroring and empathy play an important role in both the evolution and the development of intimacy, which is important to the development of verbal, i.e., symbolic, communication. Consider the epitome of intimate relationships, mother and child. Watch a video of a mother-infant face to face interaction, how they mirror each other in action, e.g., sticking out tongues, and in rhythm, and this is only the beginning. In my former life I was a speech-language pathologist working primarily with preschoolers, some of whom had articulation disorders that made their speech difficult to understand. I learned that no matter how disordered the child’s articulation, his or her mother could understand them. Often fathers could too, though not as well as mother, depending on how involved the dad was in parenting. Also older siblings were usually pretty good at understanding them. In these early years communicative success is critical to energizing development. Indeed, as throughout our lifespan, feeling understood is a prerequisite to feeling good about our relationships and our life.
Parent-child mirroring also plays an essential role in the development of emotional regulation. Allan Schore gives a comprehensive summary of research into this in his two volumes on Affect Regulation and Affect Dysregulation. While most people focus on the how the child learns to gain comfort, calm, self soothe, and recover from emotional distress, Shore also sees the importance of emotional innervation, i.e., the infant learns how to be positively excited through mirroring with parents. We need to develop and acquire the capabilities to cope with distress, alleviate sadness, and also very importantly to be happy, i.e., to energize with positive emotions and use that energy for relating, or as my wife and I said in our vows, “to build a space for joy.”
Consider now how energetic, joyful mirroring appears later in life and its important contribution to social bonding and the expansion of intimacy. I believe all cultures, at least those healthy dynamic ones, have traditions that promote musical fellowship and ecstatic dancing, e.g., drum circles, Celtic ceilidhs, and some vibrant church services.
As an example of what I would call an unhealthy culture, remember almost any repressive fundamentalist religion. Scottish Presbyterian ministers in the 19thcentury demanded that musical instruments be destroyed (how could they destroy the family fiddle?), my Baptist family frowned on all dancing and rock and roll (were Buddy Holly and Elvis really doing the Devil’s work?), and even today the Taliban and ISIS use inquisitorial measures to restrict dancing and music. One measure of unhealthiness is hypocrisy; for example when allied forces invaded Afghanistan in the effort to fight terrorism, they captured some Taliban leaders and their cars that had within tapes and CDs of music they had forbidden others to have. It’s a small sick joy listening must have brought them.
Finally consider falling in love and how sexual intimacy involves the energetic acceleration of each partner’s pleasure centers together. This is a highly skilled, difficult and variable performance and its learning requires a certain level of healthy development that includes how to mirror such actions and feelings. In my past life as a clinical psychologist I worked with sexually aggressive youth, i.e., they had sex on someone, not with them. Their aggression generally resulted from key experiences that bruised their empathic capability and stunted their capacity for real intimacy. They used sex to energize themselves through feelings of power and control at the expense of their ‘partner.’ This bruising and stunting is more pervasive in our culture than many understand.
Why is the #MeToo movement so important? Because it demands change to how males (mostly) exert power to gain energy for themselves while draining the other’s energy; indeed they transform the victim’s energy from intimacy’s positive dynamic to the negative toxins of trauma and assault. And so, the #MeToo movement in its full expression insists that our culture promote true intimacy through the abnegation of the mostly male illusion that coercion is a path to intimate joy (and parents need to instill a finer model for masculine intimacy). That mirroring leads to intimacy is then a most precious process, and we must nurture and protect it. Intimacy needs cherishing, or as Stevie Wonder sang, “Love’s in need of love today”. (Now don’t get me started about the separation of parents and children and the consequent bruising of the child’s development of empathy.) Better now to travel on.