Mirror Neurons

When you're not the favorite child

This article on favorite children from the New York Times resurfaced in time for Father's Day yesterday.  It's interesting, and reassuring just to know it's a universal problem.  One commenter named Dave from Omaha had a sad story,

As children, we 5 siblings, 4 boys and one girl, got along famously. I can count the fights between us on one hand in our entire childhood. The favoritism to the oldest, a boy, was accepted and largely unquestioned. His post-high school education was funded 100%. Books, tuition, room, board, car and spending money. When I attended college I was given not one red cent. Others experienced the same. He was taken into the family business and made wealthy. He worked hard, but he had opportunities not given the others. Dad died last year and it came to be known that the oldest will benefit from the estate far more than the others. To the tune of millions vs. a few tens of thousands. That was the last straw. Each of the five have gone their separate ways and we can't be considered a family any longer in any more than name only. Favoritism unchecked will destroy a family. I know.

One commenter said she wished the article provided helpful tips into what to do if you're not the favorite.  I agreed- the article didn't provide any insight into how to heal from not being the preferred sibling, so I replied to her.  Here's what I wrote.

I wish the author had consulted a Jungian therapist for her article.  I think what Carl Jung would say is that children are manifestations of their parents' owned and disowned qualities of their psychic structure.  Some of our children, we can project our desired qualities onto successfully (ie. they don't bounce back in our face and remind us of how awful we are)- these are our favorite children; whereas some of them we cast our shadow selves onto- these are the unowned qualities that we think are bad or out of control and are having trouble integrating- the children that receive these projections are the black sheep, the scapegoats for our unprocessed unconscious material.  I'm not totally doing Jung justice here, but you get the jist.  When we haven't been favorited by our parents, we have to recognize that we're the bearer of our parents' shadows- it's not personal, and with enough growth and maturity, we become the parents of our parents, helping them access those unintegrated qualities safely and in love.  But who the hell lives long enough, has the inclination, or starts their healing journey soon enough to get to that point?  Most of us, if we're lucky, will only have enough time on this earth to process the gut wrenching pain of being the neglected child and learn to parent ourselves.  And we parent ourselves through meditation.

So what do I mean by that.  When you're not the favorite child, your essential qualities haven't been mirrored back to you very well, meaning you haven't felt "seen" for who you are.   In neurobiology, they would say that our mirror neurons haven't been attuned to by our parents' mirror neurons, without which, we don't have the all-important emotional resonance we need from them, out of which a sense of safe attachment is derived. 

Fortunately for these children, the intrapersonal attunement we achieve between our own minds and our nervous system during meditation has the same healing effect on us as if we were being resonated with by our parents.  In other words, it's been scientifically proven that compassionate self-observation through meditation offers the same soothing effect on our mirror neurons that are craving resonance as you would have if you had had better interpersonal attunement with your parents.   In this sense, these children are able to provide the parenting to themselves that they never received as children. 

Where I read this latter neurobiology stuff is in Dr. Daniel Siegel's book The Mindful Brain.  If you want to know more about the technical details of how meditation has the same effect on our brains as being mirrored by a parent, check it out.


Why learning neuroscience is so hard

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    Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a  model  of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a model of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

I've been reading about neuroscience these last four months, and I've really been struggling to integrate the material into my own words, hence the dearth of blog posts.

I decided to google why neuroscience is so hard, and while it's in part because only long-time meditators and intellectual heavyweights- of which I am neither- really comprehend neurophenomenlology enough to verbalize the subtle and complex processes in a way that laypeople can understand, there are few other reasons.

First of all, there is still so much even neurobiologists don't know about the brain, and parts we don't understand the function of.  There are 100 billion neurons- or nerve cells- and endless combinations they can connect with each other.  The connections between the neurons, called synapses- are shaped by both genes and life experience, but we don't know to what extent genes shape connections, and experience shapes connections.

Nerve cell.   Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Nerve cell.  Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Moreover, neuroscience requires both objectivity and subjectivity.  If we're going to understand the phenomena of consciousness, on the one hand, we need scientifically valid observations of the brain; on the other, first person subjective accounts of peoples' internal experiences.  Because both the brain and the mind come together to form consciousness, scientists need to get creative and develop tests that measure and scientifically quantify mental phenomena. 

There is a complicated interplay between the brain and the mind: the mind and its attendant concepts and meanings is rooted in the activity of the brain, and the brain- due to its plasticity- is constructed itself by the mind.  As a result, the brain is turning its social circuits that normally attunes to others, inside out and is interacting with itself.  However, we know from the famous double-slit experiment (on the interference pattern of electrons being shot through a double-slit apparatus) that the mere act of observing electrons changes their behavior; just the same, mindfulness research has demonstrated a similar conclusion- that the mere act of becoming aware of your own awareness alters the form and function of your brain.  Your awareness is goes back on itself in a re-entry loop where the emergent process takes on a life of its own, improving memory, focus, and empathy.

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.
— Dr. Daniel Siegel

Some philosophers would say our consciousness is simply reducible to the chemical and electrical firings of our neurons, while others prefer to hold out for the discovery of the "self node" tucked away somewhere in the folds of our gyri like a pearl in an oyster shell that can answer for each and every one of our thoughts and decisions. 

To make things even more difficult, up until a few years ago, neither the field of psychology or neurobiology had a working, agreed-upon definition of the mind. 

Dr. Siegel, whom I mention a lot, only because I'm reading his book right now (The Mindful Brain), recounts how he has gone around the world speaking to mental health practictioners, and at every event, asked for a show of hands of who had ever had a lecture at any time in their training that defined what the mind was.  His finding- out of the 100,000 mental health professionals that he's taught- was that less than 2% had.  While it's true that philosophers and psychologists have been trying to answer that question since the ancient Greeks at least, what's cool is that we're actually at a unique time in history where we know enough to cobble a rough definition together.  Here is Siegel's own working definition:

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.

But there are other concepts that are still undefined.  Think about it.  Can you define consciousness?  Neither can psychologists.  What about self, or identity?

The next challenge is that the brain consists of more than just the pinky-brown organ in the head.  As the control centre of the entire central nervous system, the brain's nerves are routed through the spine and spread all the way to the soles of the feet.  The fact that this complex system works in concert to keep our bodies in homeostasis is nothing less than jaw-dropping.  As one scientist wrote, "If given the choice between having to pilot a plane without knowing anything about how to work any of the controls, and sitting at the dashboard of my central nervous system, coordinating the millions of outgoing and incoming processes happening every second, I'd choose the pilot job in a heartbeat."

Finally, because my purpose in studying the brain is to understand how brain form and function relates to different personality types, and that research is still in its infancy, there is little that can be said with objective certainty, although Dario Nardi (among others) have been doing some interesting research at UCLA, mapping the brain patterns of Carl Jung's legendary MBTI types, and is now starting to work with Enneagram types.  I'm sure more research funding will be forthcoming the more it becomes clear how brain research is important to our collective health, but in the meantime, we rely on anecdotal observations.  For example, during an informal study of brain activity and Enneagram types, Dr. Daniel Siegel noted in an interview with Russ Hudson and Jessica Dibb that Type Two's (one of the Enneagram's three image types) "have a lot of mirror neurons".  There is no book yet out there detailing what these observations could mean, but hopefully someone bright will pen the first one soon. 


A Very Quick Study on Self-Preservation Twos

Last night, I was scrolling through Facebook and found an article about fraternal twins that don't look anything alike. 

Fraternal twins James and Daniel from London.  James, left, is outgoing and academic; Daniel, right, is shy and left school as soon as he could.   Photo courtesy of the Guardian

Fraternal twins James and Daniel from London.  James, left, is outgoing and academic; Daniel, right, is shy and left school as soon as he could.  Photo courtesy of the Guardian

Lucy, left, studies art and design at Gloucester College. Maria studies law and psychology at Cheltenham College.   Photo courtesy of Huffington Post. 

Lucy, left, studies art and design at Gloucester College. Maria studies law and psychology at Cheltenham College.  Photo courtesy of Huffington Post. 

The articles are pretty interesting because they detail what life is like growing up with a twin who's a different race than you. 

This is maybe a bit of a stretch, but when I was thinking about what to write about last night, it struck me that in the Enneagram world, we have a similar enigma to the twin who defies categorization, and that's the Self-Preservation Two: the Helper who would prefer to be helped.  You expect one thing, and you actually get the opposite.

First, let's look at the Type Two in general.  Commonly called "the Helper", their core identity is formed by a sadness around an early disconnection from the Source of Love, and so they go through life trying to replicate that feeling they knew at a preverbal level by going out of their way to connect with others- often by offering their help.  Being envelopped in Divine Love was rapturous, so it's completely understandable that you'd be scrambling to get that feeling back. 

They represent the heart's longing for, as childhood psychologist Margaret Mahler termed it, symbiosis- feeling one with the Mother and her breast.  "The imprint of this symbiotic relationship, then, leaves the Two with the conviction that union with Being [or Source] happens through union with another person" (Maitri, 2000).

Twos are at the beginning of the heart triad, where the search for love, value, and identity take place.  In the heart triad, there is manipulation of the inner state to suit the external environment.  The shapeshifters and chameleons of the Enneagram, Twos, Threes, and Fours ask themselves what prized qualities would make them more loveable, and seek to deliver them, at the cost of their own individuality.  For the Two, that quality they see missing, needed, and therefore most desired in the world, is love. 

Two's tend to be friendly, warm, affectionate, and giving.  I heard in an interview with Dan Siegel that Twos have more mirror neurons than other types, which accounts for their ability to sense your needs before you even know about them yourself.  In their conscious minds, the helping is without strings, but unconsciously, because Two's have repressed their agression [because that's not conducive to union], they have a backwards way of getting what they want out of life.  Refusing to satisfy their own needs (because that would be selfish), they are driven by an unconscious belief that if they can just give enough, someone will recognize their sacrifice and come and love them for who they truly are and fulfill all their needs without them having to ask.  In Jung's archetypes, they are the Great Mother or Great Goddess, hoping to finally be recognized as such so they can finally flourish and come to life, like Sleeping Beauty, as Sandra Maitri points out.  Another stereotype is that of the Jewish mother, who, as Maitri says, would say something like, "Look at all I do for you.  And even though you never call me or think about me, here I am, sacrificing for you out of the goodness of my heart.  Don't worry about me, I'll be fine."

The exquisite Sandra Maitri, who is a Type Two herself, describes them thus:

Twos, then, manipulate through giving to get what they want.  They feed you, flatter you, play to you, cajole you, and as Naranjo used to say, unlike Sixes who lick boots, Two's- to use a vulgar but apt phrase- kiss ass.  Their biggest manipulation, however, is being helpful.  They will help you out with whatever you need- whether you were aware of the need or not- whether it's financial help, doing something for you, listening to your troubles, matchmaking, counselling, cajoling, supporting you and so on. 

In a loving relationship, a Two idealises need as the quintessential quality that lovers should have for each other, and they go to greath lengths to make themselves needed. 

They try to insinuate themselves and make themselves indispensable to someone they need in this way so that they will be needed in return. 

I work in a school, and I often have little Type Twos coming into my office often asking if there's anything I need help with.  The asking frequently turns to begging.  "Pleeeeeeeeeease can we help?  Pleeeeeeease is there anything, ANYTHING at all you might need help with?"

OK.  So I'm sure you get the idea.  But now I was going to write about a particular sub-type of the Two, the Self-Preservation Two, where you get all the emotional manipulation without much helping!  But I've run out of time.  I'm just going to have to say "to be continued."


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Between the Brain and the Mind: Knowing (or SOCK)

Fluorescent image, obtained using multiphoton excitation (MPE) microscopy, showing the brain neurons of a live mouse expressing GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein). Image courtesy of Carlos Portera-Cailliau, UCLA and Coherent.

We know that the brain's neural firing generates activity in the mind, but in the past 15 to 20 years, we've come to understand that the opposite is also true, that the mind can influence the structure of the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity showed that instead of the previous scientifically-held belief that the brain stopped developing after the age of two, and thereafter only experienced the decline in the number of neurons in the brain, we are actually capable of activating and even creating new neurons into our senior years. (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). 

In this way, we see that the brain and the mind create each other.  Before embarking on how their functions correlate, it would be useful to distinguish their roles and capacities.

Obviously, the brain is the organ, and the mind is something generated out of the brain's processes, but a little more ethereal because aside from just knowing, we can know that we know- something unique to the human brain. Daniel Siegel defines the mind as the process that regulates the flow of energy and information. 

The mind comes up with concepts through SOCK- sensation, observation, conceptions- they all lead to knowing.  The energy and information that comes in through the S- Sensations is experienced on two levels: internal sensations (travelling from the visceral organs to the Pre-frontal cortex in the forehead region) and external sensations (travelling from the peripheral nervous system to the sensory area of the cortex at the top of the head). 

We have energy and information coming in through the O: Observation, as well.  Siegel describes observation as the key that unlocks the doors to sensation.  You're talking to a friend or relative and you're really present, and you notice something about them you hadn't noticed before- perhaps a smile line, or the worry they seem to be carrying, which leads to a sensation of tenderness arising from the chest area, or you feel tightness because your mirror neurons are picking up on their worries.  Observation keeps us from careening from moment to moment on automatic pilot.

There is energy and information coming in through the C: Conception.  Our mental concepts can keep us from direct sensation, sure, but mindfulness teachers remind us not to play favorites among what arises- sensations, observations, and concepts- are all to be treated like a welcome guest and allowed to pass through.  Conception can in fact integrate what we've picked up through sensations and observation into a deeper kind of wisdom than had we been operating out of the prison of ordinary living.

Finally, when each of these three streams-- sensation, observation, and conceptializing-- converge, they reach the headwaters of K: Knowing.  The S, O, and C allow us to Know the present moment, "a knowing paradoxically without words, without concepts, without sensations.  This knowing is a kind of subterranean stream, beneath this valley of the present moment, a formless Knowing" (Siegel, 2007).

Practicing mindfulness over a period of time has shown to have an effect on the structure of the brain- thickening affected areas of the brain, or creating new neuropathways- even new neurons.  The mind and the brain work hand-in hand to build and shape each other.

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Developping Social

I've been writing about the Social blindspot.  We all have a blindspot, but when we have the Social instinct as the lowest end of the Social/Self-preservation/Sexual totem pole, it comes with its unique challenges in life.  Of course, the challenges that come from having Self-Preservation or Sexual at the bottom also present an equal set of challenges, but they're for a later blog post.

People with a social blind spot are - you guessed it- more likely to stay at home, and more likely to decline invitations out with groups.  They're the homebodies of the world, and enjoy luxuriating in the space they've created for themselves and lapping up the sights, sounds, and sensations of their family around them.  Or they just simply like knowing that the temperature, energy, and noise level is going to suit them in their own home, thank-you very much, and they'd prefer those comforts than the strangeness and hullaballoo of being in someone else's home who doesn't make coffee the way they like it, or who doesn't vaccuum their carpet enough, and they predict the cat hair is going to be clinging to their feet when they get home. 

However much we derive comfort from our own systems, however, we can't escape situations that call for the social instinct.  We're going to need to attend funerals and volunteer meetings; at work, we may need to network, or at least attend Christmas parties, and attending workshops means socializing during the coffee breaks.  Even in a monastery where men and women have taken vows of silence, there is an energy that a person carries around with them that people pick up on- does this person feel comfortable with us all being in the same room as her, or would she like us to leave?  People can tell without even knowing how they know. 

Therefore, if you don't have it, you're going to need to develop it.  But how?

This is not to say that people with the social blindspot don't want to be with people- we all want to be with others, and we all love spending time with others- it's just that we tend to have preferences for different social setting configurations.  We may crave an intensity with one other special person, or perhaps a more family-oriented activity.  For a social blindspot person, it's partly going to depend on which instinct falls into the second spot on the totem pole: sexual or self-preservation.

As awkward as group situations may feel to the Social blindspot person, it may be comforting to know that our brains have been wired to be social since before civilization.  Daniel Siegal calls our brains the social organs of the body.  We actually all have the wiring in place to become socially adept- it's already part of our biological make-up of being a human being.

According to Siegel, a thread that's been running through neuroscience literature since the 1920s is an injunction to use the social circuitry in our brain for the purposes of becoming "social" with ourselves (ie. having a self-reflective life), and when we can be social with ourselves-- and this is simply my extrapolation of the principle-- we can be more comfortable in situations where the social instinct is called for.

So what does it mean to be social with ourselves?  That sounds a little weird and perhaps narcissistic.  But Siegel makes the point that developping a mindfulness practice is about learning to have compassion and empathy toward ourselves, even lovingkindness.  And of course, we've all heard that in order to love others, we have to first love ourselves. 

Let me give an example from my work.  I work in an elementary school, so I see little kids interacting all the time.  Once, I saw three girls at the fountain.  Two girls were talking and the third girl was trying to make a contribution to the conversation.  At one point, she leaned in and, with her face lit up, inserted a comment, speaking more in the direction of the "leader" of the group, but the "leader"- who was in the middle of her sentence, looked in her direction for a split second, but - not out of spite, but just simply wanting to continue the momentum of her sentence- finished what she was saying to the other girl, and no sooner than she finished her sentence than the other girl interjected, and the gap was closed in the conversation.  The "outside" girl's shoulder's hunched, she exhaled, and the three of them walked back to class together.  The "outside girl" didn't try to pick up the thread again. 

Now, I've also observed that a kid with higher social, on the other hand, will try repeating what they've said, or will drop the idea altogether to respond to something else that someone else said.  I believe that these socials know that their contribution is important, because they've been attuned to before in a group, and this time should be no different.

But now I'm straying from Dan Siegel.  We should get back to science, and I'm going to pick up on the neurobiology of attunement next post.  Attunement being this ability to connect, to not only physically see a person and hear their words and understand that there's another person in front of us, but to also make them feel seen, heard and understood.  Siegel says, "Attunement is how one person focuses attention on the internal world of another.  This focus on the mind of another person harnesses neural circuitry that enables two people to feel felt by each other."

And this is the missing piece when we feel we don't belong in a group- that ability to "come back to ourselves" after a contribution we've made to a conversation doesn't come across as well as we intended, lick our wounds, so to speak (or have loving compassion on ourselves) and go back and make another go of it.

"This state [of attunement] is crucial if people in relationships are to feel vibrant and alive, understood and at peace.  Research has shown that such attuned relationships promote resilience and longevity."

To be continued...

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