a conversation about mirroring and empathy
In April 2011, after reading Dr. Marco Iacoboni’s book, I reached out to him via email. I asked a series of questions about his work and its potential implications for understanding how shared movement practices cultivate empathy among dancers. We discussed empathy as a core component in any emergent collaborative process of creation, in this case for dance improvisation and applied strategies for autism therapy. Our correspondence led to our eventual meeting as part of Susan Sgorbati’s Creative Research Residency at EMPAC, where we collaborated on a series of workshops, performances, and talks. His work has and continues to play an active role in shaping my research. Here are excerpts of our email exchanges:
Marco: First of all, beautiful questions. I get all sorts of questions from readers all over the world, and I try to answer all of them. Sometimes, the questions make it easier (or more pleasurable) to answer. It’s certainly the case here. :) See below my answers, just under each one of your questions:
Marie: In our improvisational duet practice, The Recall Form Emily and I develop a shared movement vocabulary by engaging in a series of movement exchanges and open ended explorations; throughout which we take turns creating movement, observing one another, and recalling each other’s movement phrases. In Mirroring People, p.26, you state that the human mirror neuron system is capable of activating for abstract actions. Because of the complex and abstract nature of the movements Emily and I create in this process, I wonder if, and to what degree, our mirror neuron system is activated during the execution of our form? Can you predict how abstract our actions can become whilst engaging our mirror neuron system?
Marco: There are many layers here, but I guess I can summarize my thinking by saying that mirror neurons can fire for highly abstract gestures, movements, actions, as long as the context in which those actions occur provides meaning to those actions. I guess that in the context in which the movements that Emily and you create occur, those movements are charged with meaning (meaning in the sense of an existential meaning). Yes, I think your mirror neurons are highly active for the complex and abstract actions you and Emily make while dancing.
Marie: In our practice we believe the ability to cultivate a sense of empathy through imitation and observation requires a deep sense of listening and a willingness to engage with and explore a partner’s movement vocabulary and or ideas. We also believe that the ability to empathize in this practice encompasses the capacities for embodying, amplifying, and supporting a partner’s movement choices. It is clear that this practice requires its participants to operate one more than one level at once. Can you describe what other neurological systems might be activated by this practice?
Marco: I think the list can be very long: your perceptual systems (vision, audition, proprioception, touch), your emotional brain centers, the areas that process space (there are many, they do it in many different ways), your motor system (of course). I guess the only system that probably shuts itself down is the system for cognitive control, which may get in the way of this process of engaging with and exploring a partner's movement
Marie: The physical nature of these improvisational practices allows its participants to sense and experience the feeling of an integrated mind and body. In no way do we question the validity of this experience and yet many still deny its existence. In Mirroring People, p.92 you bring up the concept of “embodied cognition.” Do you think that the discovery of mirror neurons provides the scientific support we need to contest the theory of Cartesian dualism, therefore supporting ‘Embodied learning’ and the idea of a ‘thinking body’?
Marco: I think mirror neurons provide strong evidence in support of embodied cognition. Still, some ideas are so entrenched that it's difficult to get rid of them. Dualism is one of them. The mind as a computer (which is just a by-product of dualism) is another one. Embodiment has been around for millennia, but somehow people resist it. We tend to think that Descartes has made us blind to embodiment, but I think it goes all the way back to Plato. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that while mirror neurons are compelling evidence in support of the embodied view of the mind, a lot of people will remain unconvinced because their beliefs are too strong (sounds like a religious thing, indeed there are strong emotional reactions in the academic world against mirror neurons, I call those people the mirror neuron haters)
Marie: In the chapbook and in our improvisational dance practice we define agency as the choice to move, and interact with the ensemble. Agency is highly valued in our work, as the contributions of individuals, each with their own unique movement histories and vocabularies, enable the ensemble forms to develop with richness and complexity. Even though the compositional development and unfolding of structures is dependent on the collective decision making of the ensemble, it does not mean that the agency of individual ensemble members or the capacity for complex local interactions is limited. In many ways agency is strengthened through the process of co-creating, as having the support of others can actually expand one’s perception and range in choice making and development.
In your book you describe people as “social agents with limited autonomy” (Mirroring People p.209). In the context of dance improvisation, we experience a sense of social agency, but do not feel that we would describe our autonomy as “limited”. Instead we seek to balance individual autonomy with collective choice-making in order to select for and fulfill emerging patterns. Based on your research, would you argue that social agency replaces or overcomes a dancer’s sense of autonomy when working with an ensemble?
Marco: I really like the way you put it. It's much more positive than the way I did put it in the book. I guess in the book I was discussing this issue more in terms of the legal implications of autonomy. But now I see that it's a bit negative. I like the concept of a sense of social agency that does not limit individual autonomy. The individuals are simply part of a more complex entity.
Marie: Might an aspect of social agency include a willingness to work in a mediated space where the value of co-creation overcomes the conflict between autonomy and ensemble?
Marco: Yes, that'd be fantastic. That mediated space is probably a fun place to be and work in.
Marie: When composing with an ensemble, we must act and perceive simultaneously in order to participate in the development of self-organizing group patterns. In Mirroring People, p.14, you state that action and perception are not separated in the brain, as many people believe. Do you think this neuronal firing pattern may be reflected in our improvisational practice?
Marco: You mean, the coupling of perception and action? I think that coupling happens all the time, and many neuronal mechanisms support it. I'd say mirror neurons are probably the most compelling evidence for its existence. I also think you guys use your mirror neurons a lot (indeed you may have developed more mirroring capacity than a lot of other people because of what you do) (btw, I watched some videos on the web of you and the others dancing)
Marie: In the fall I am going to volunteer at the Option Institute and The Autism Treatment Center of America in Sheffield, MA. Their program, The Son-Rise Program®, uses mirroring and or imitation activities as part of their innovative treatment system. They believe that, “Joining in a child's repetitive and ritualistic behaviors supplies the key to unlocking the mystery of these behaviors and facilitates eye contact, social development and the inclusion of others in play”
Do you believe that the discovery of mirror neurons may provide strong scientific support for their treatment program?
Marco: Absolutely. I remember a therapist working with patients with quite severe autism telling me that some days it is very difficult for him to work with his patients, and that as last resort he starts imitating them, their stereotyped movements, and when he does that, the patients immediately 'see' him, connect with him, and then it's much easier to work with them.
Marie: It appears that Mirror Neurons are quickly becoming a topic of interest in the world of dance. However, (as you know) for many the new neuroscience is very controversial. Although I disagree, some argue that the question surrounding ‘where mirror neurons come from’ detracts from its validity. In Mirroring People you talk about the neuronal systems with which we are born and the development of the mirror neuron system in infancy.
Marco: First of all, that argument is wrong. regardless where they come from, mirror neurons are quite interesting cells
Marie: Are we in fact born with mirror neurons? If so, are they anatomically distinct from other neurons in the premotor cortex? If not, do they become activated once an infant develops the capacity to mirror?
Marco: 1. most likely, given that we can imitate at birth. but obviously there is no direct evidence 2. not sure i know what you mean here. 'anatomically distinct' may mean: they look different (no), they are clustered in a sector of the premotor cortex (yes and no, yes because they are found more easily in some sectors of premotor cortex, but even there they are mixed with more 'classical' premotor neurons 3. most likely the mirror neurons make the infant capable to mirror
Marie: It is also believed by some that this scientific discovery seeks to reduce our ability to relate to or empathize with others through movement to a single neuronal mechanism. However, after reading your book and talking with you about the implications this research may have for my work in dance improvisation, I (and I think you will agree) do not believe that this is the case. How would you address this criticism?
Marco: Correct. Obviously empathy is a complex thing, mirror neurons (i believe) play an important role, but they interact with other neurons too to implement empathy.
Marie: I strongly believe that the development of human language is deeply rooted in our kinesthetic and emotional experiences. And it is my opinion that research on mirror neurons seeks to illuminate and support the possibility of a movement based origin and evolution of human language by providing some neurological understanding of how we are biologically tuned to communicate with and relate to one another through acts of mirroring and observation. Would you agree?
Marco: absolutely. as you know, i dedicate a whole chapter to mirror neurons and language
Marie: And do you believe that the discovery of the mirror neuron system aims to provide some scientific evidence that language is in fact post-kinetic?
Marco: not sure what you mean with post-kinetic but i guess we agree that language is deeply rooted in our sensory-motor experience and evolved from systems dedicated to action
Marie: While the mirror neuron system is often discussed in isolation, we know that nothing truly exists in isolation, in fact, everything is always and already in relationship to something else. Surely our ability to relate to one another in this way is not limited or reduced to this single neuronal firing pattern. Thus, in order for these connections to take place the mirror neuron system must operate and interact within the larger complex, dynamic systems of the brain and body.
Marco: of course
Marie: I would argue that how we interact and relate to one another is continually changing; it is shaped by both our past and present tactile, kinesthetic, emotional and corporeal experiences. Our values, beliefs and religious practices may also be an influential part of such interactions.
Marie: Has your research begun to address how the mirror neuron system functions within the larger, complex systems of the body i.e. the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system?
Marco: Yes, we are doing some projects along those lines. Sadly, when things get more complex, science is also more difficult :(
Marie: Many scientists, including Edelman, believe that the human brain is a self-organizing system that creates emergent patterns.
Would you describe the mirror neuron system as a self-organizing system capable of creating emergent patterns?
Marco: Yes, I tend to agree. While mirror neurons have amazing properties, they are still neurons. so, the properties of the brain, self-organization, dynamical systems, and plasticity apply also to mirror neurons and the mirror neuron system.
Marie: Despite the current controversies, it is my hope that these new and emerging scientific discoveries will engage people in conversations about the multi-faceted connections between science, art, and life.
Marco: That'd be cool :) my pleasure
Dr. Marco Iacoboni: To be honest, I really don’t give a damn about the brain. I care about the human soul. However, I happen to believe that the soul is in the mind, and that the mind is a functional process instantiated by the brain with its interactions with the body and the environment. Hence, I study the human brain. I have always been interested in how we put together perception and action. Why? Because we do it all the time, because I can’t think of a functioning life without the ability to integrate our percepts with our actions. Even when we are engaged in activities in which the integration of perception and action is almost an afterthought (for instance what I am doing now, typing on my computer this little blurb), we need to integrate perception and action to function properly. My interest in perception-action coupling led me to the study, among other things, of mirror neurons. In science, as in life, one thing leads to another, and from mirror neurons I went to study human imitation, empathy, and more generally what is called social cognition. As a neurologist, however, I also have a strong interest in the neurobiological mechanisms of neuropsychiatric conditions and how to intervene on those mechanisms.