I only have the vaguest idea what mirror neurons are but today I started thinking about them. While someone was talking to me they were nervously scraping their thumb nail against the handle of their coffee mug. It was irritating and I wanted them to stop it. I thought about asking them to stop but it would have been mean-spirited to do so. Apart from that I am aware that I also have various tics which other people put up with without comment.
I think the reason it irritated me was that in watching the nail scrape away at the mug, my mirror neurons were firing and it felt like it was me doing it, but that I had no power to stop it. The nervous thumb had invaded my mind and was making me nervous and I had no control over it.
I think the working of mirror neurons must be why we recoil with disgust when we see someone picking their nose and eating it. We imagine that it is us who is eating a stranger’s bogeys. If our brains had no mirror neurons, we could probably watch them all day with complete equanimity.
This started me wondering whether doctors, nurses and carers for the elderly have learned to override their mirror neurons. They have perhaps learned to sympathise rather than empathise. The former is helpful and leads to action while the latter isn’t and doesn’t. You just say, ‘Oh, that’s awful’ and leave it at that.
The same instinct to recoil happens to me when I watch a football match. When I see a player push the ball slightly too far in front of him and then lunge to keep possession, I automatically pull my legs up onto my chair, grab my shin and grimace in anticipation of a broken leg. Of course, somewhere in my mind I know it’s not my leg that might get broken, but my mirror neurons act as though it were.
Mirror neurons bring both positives and negatives. They are good in that they help us to empathise with others and put ourselves in their shoes. This is useful if you are going to become an understanding, compassionate person. On the other hand it can be bad, as shown by my reaction to my friend scraping her nail on her mug. They can make you irritable.