It is becoming increasingly clear that chronic pain has a tremendous impact on your immediate family. One of the more direct ways is through mirror neurons. I frequently tell my patients that when you smile at a baby the reason the baby smiles back is not because the baby is happy or thinks you’re funny. It is because you have stimulated that part of the baby’s brain.
Then I ask the spouse/ partner/ son/ daughter of my patient, “What is it like when he or she is having a bad day?” Invariably, a look of resignation or frustration comes over their face and they drop their shoulders and groan. They try to make light of it but it is not a joke. Chronic pain often puts you in a bad mood in addition to experiencing other unpleasant sensations. It stimulates a similar part of the brain in those around you so everyone is affected. You have also seen the same phenomena occur with yawning and laughter. “Laughter is contagious.” All this is occurring through mirror neurons in the brain. It’s how we learn.
Mirror neurons were accidently discovered in a primate lab where the researchers were looking at different areas of brain activity in monkeys in relation to grasping objects. They noticed that similar brain activity occurred when the monkey was observing another monkey performing the same task. There is ongoing debate whether there are specific cells that are mirror neurons or there is mirroring of brain activity from neurons in general. Regardless of how or why the mirroring activity takes place, there is little question that similar areas of the brain can be simulated whether you are performing or observing an activity. (1, 2)
My non-functioning mirror neurons
I will never forget a day I spent taking ski lessons with my son while living in Sun Valley. The instructor was a friend of ours and an extraordinary teacher. He was able to break down new concepts into doable steps. My son was ten. As the instructor was giving us the detailed instructions, my son wasn’t paying much attention. The lesson was focused on a technique called “railing” which puts your skis only on the edges and creates a precise controlled turn. It is a powerful turn and the skis don’t slide sideways at all. However, to get your skis on edge like that requires specific positioning of your shoulders, hips and knees. I was working through the steps in detail and was excited about learning. Nick was bored and I kept urging (nagging) him to pay more attention. The bottom line was at the end of the lesson, he could rail and I couldn’t. He simply imitated the instructor demonstrate the turn and in about five repetitions, he nailed it.
Mirror neurons in action
I ran across this video that illustrates the effect of mirror neurons. Watch the reaction of the baby, especially in the middle of the video. It is also a reminder how quickly babies learn and they are going to absorb what they see, not what they are told. It is one of the reasons it is so important to live the values you are trying to teach.
- Di Pellegrino, G.; Fadiga, L.; Fogassi, L.; Gallese, V.; Rizzolatti, G (1992). “Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study”. Experimental Brain Research. 91: 176–180. PMID1301372. doi:1007/bf00230027.
- Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Fadiga, Luciano; Gallese, Vittorio; Fogassi, Leonardo (1996). “Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions”. Cognitive Brain Research. 3(2): 131–141. PMID8713554. doi:1016/0926-6410(95)00038-0.
References obtained from Wikipedia/ Mirror neuron: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron