“Each time an individual sees an action done by another individual, neurons that represent that action are activated in the observer’s premotor cortex. This automatically induced, motor representation of the observed action corresponds to that which is spontaneously generated during active action and whose outcome is known to the acting individual. Thus, the mirror system transforms visual information into knowledge” - Rizzolatti and Craighero (2004)
General explanation of how mirror neurons function
Much time has passed since mirror neurons (MNs) were first described in macaque monkeys, and now we have access to new findings. We know that MNs are multimodal, i.e. related to both visual perception and motor acts. They are activated when we act, when we do an activity, and also when we observe an activity being done by someone else.
When participants watch a Biodanza facilitator demonstrate a dance, they activate the very same neuronal connections that are activated in the facilitator at the level of the brain. Not only that, they also activate the same muscles that the facilitator activates while he or she is doing the demonstration. In this way, the observer is also feeling and experiencing what the facilitator is feeling during the demonstration. Participants connect with the facilitator because the demonstration is being embodied in their own bodies. This happens without direct physical contact, which is not necessary to create the sense of connection with the other.
“When I see a person doing something, the same action which this person performed entered inside my motor system and I have a copy of it.” - Rizzolatti
“... we understand action because the motor representation of that action is activated in our brain.”
- Rizzolatti, Fogassi, and Gallese (2001)
Which and how many mirror neurons do we need to activate?
Since the 1990s various MNs were discovered. The first were related to action, then with emotions, and more recently with forms of vitality. Nowadays people talk about mirror properties rather than mirror neurons.
As social beings we have developed and refined the possibility to communicate with others through MNs. The mirror mechanism is a fundamental principle of the functioning of the nervous system. We do a inner representation, we create representation from within, of what we perceive externally.
“The mirror mechanism is a basic brain mechanism that transforms sensory representations of others' behaviour into one's own motor or visceromotor representations concerning that behaviour. According to its location in the brain, it may fulfil a range of cognitive functions, including action and emotion understanding.”
This is a very important technical description to understand how physical distancing doesn’t need to be affective/emotional distancing. The key word here is internal representation of what we perceive externally or outside of us. A motor or visual-motor representation is not like seeing a photo – it is an internal representation of what I see, it is a motor or visceral-motor representation. This internal representation is the basis of motor mimicry and of the understanding of the other (and essential to feedback). Those who are experienced in Biodanza know that this is true. We know that we can communicate through the eyes with our gaze. The neuroscience confirms that this is so. It is good to be aware that this neurophysiological mechanism allows this possibility for communication during this period of lockdown and physical distancing, which gives us the possibility to refine our capacity of affective communication in various ways.
Types of mirror neurons
Mirror neurons for action were the first to be discovered and refer to motor action, to the motor systems
Mirror neurons for emotions were later discovered in various different areas of the cortex. These MNs are very involved in limbic system and function with the activation of the motor system and the neurovegetative system. The functioning of MNs for emotions requires facial mimicking. The use of facial masks limits the possibility of facial mimicry to the eyes. This is a real limitation and yet it is also an opportunity as it allows us to deepen the connection with the other through the eyes and to develop the capacity to know the other through the gaze.
Mirror neuron for forms of vitality are more important and interesting for biodanza. The concept of vitality forms was introduced by Daniel Stern. These MNs were discovered and individuated in area of the brain called the insula. The insula is a small region of the cerebral cortex located deep within the lateral sulcus, which is a large fissure that separates the frontal and parietal lobes from the temporal lobe.
Now we know that there are mirror neurons for vitality forms, but what are vitality forms? The vitality form is the personal, individual, vital experience intrinsic in the movement. Daniel Stern says that this deep sense of vitality permeates all our experience.
According to Daniel Stern, it is possible to trace vitality to real physical and mental operations - including movement, time, perception of force - as well as spatial aspects of the movement and its underlying intention. These are the 5 indivisible elements which constitute our experience of vitality.
Each of us moves in a certain way and the form of vitality is how we actually move. The form of vitality is not an emotion, it is more generic than emotion and prior to emotions.
We can move in different ways, e.g. in an energetic, confident, warm, affective, uncertain, rigid, cold, or delicate way…
If the Biodanza facilitator is feeling uncertain then the mirror neurons of the participants will pick it up and begin to feel the same.
Mirror neurons – how and what
The MNs for actions and emotions can explain the intention of the action, whereas the MNs for the forms of vitality indicate how we move and how we live in the world.
MNs for actions and emotions can explain the aim of an action, whereas the characteristics of the dynamic imprint of the other, the form of vitality intrinsic to their movement, indicate how they move and how they live in the world.
The identification based on imitation also needs a vital form.
The MNs for the form of vitality found in the insula function using both the motor system and the neurovegetative systems. Here the masks also limit facial mimicry. How the facilitator moves affects the students. How we move passes through these types of MNs of the participants. Mimicry is important but not fundamental. All types MNs are very important because together they allow affective attunement with the other. They allow us to adapt our behaviour to the other. We can be in feedback with the other despite the distance.
Researchers have identified three types of mirror neurons that respond to stimuli - 1) in reaching distance, 2) outside of reaching distance, and 3) both distances.
Rizzolatti says that the MNs are the basis of the understanding of the other, and of the intention behind their motor actions. A complete understanding would requires us to integrate other modalities of understanding, such as language, etc., but as a base, the basic understanding is through the MNs. We could say that the motor experience improves the understanding of the other independently of the possibility of physical contact. Physical contact is not required for communication to happen. The greater the movements the better the communication.
An example of how facilitators can consciously activate all types of MNs is by proposing segmental movement exercises as these increase bodily awareness, which will in turn increase the possibility of activating the MNs. Demonstrations are fundamental for MNs. We can use many situations to work better with these MNs.
To conclude, the mirror mechanism is a fundamental principle to the nervous system and to humans as social beings. The MNs exist and function all the time, but being aware of this can help us to maintain and improve our social relations with others despite the physical distancing during this historical period of lockdown. We can consciously use this knowledge to enhance the sense of affective and relational closeness and to improve relationships. The MNs make emotional and affective communication possible despite the physical distancing.