In a "hmmm, that's pretty cool" sort of way I've been aware of mirror neurons for a few years. I think I first read about them at The Edge), and I briefly wrote here about reading and brain activation based on articles (here and here) that didn't use the term "mirror neuron" but which in hindsight seem to involve them. But last week an
article in The New York Times really caught my attention.
It seems that mirror neuron systems in people are amazingly sophisticated, responding to a huge variety of stimuli, perhaps the neural underpinning for empathy (and when inactive, an explanation for autism?), and responding more strongly the more experience the viewer has with the action or state being viewed. According to neuroscientist Dr. Vittorio Gallese, even "[a]rt exploits mirror neurons.… When you see the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini's hand of divinity grasping marble, you see the hand as if it were grasping flesh, he said. Experiments show that when you read a novel, you memorize positions of objects from the narrator's point of view." That last is extraordinary.
Mark Turner, George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and others have argued that mental experience is based on bodily metaphor and action, on narrative built from bodily experience. Mirror neurons seem to provide a neurological basis for their claims, and if I were with my books in Maryland I'd be combing their indices for the term. If they are right, and if current work on mirror neurons proves as deeply implicative as it seems to me, it may provide a stronger theoretical underpinning for trust in our ability to understand other people's motivations and actions and, it must be admitted, a methodology for manipulating that ability. But that manipulation is just what writers have always done.
Systematic frustration of such systems is one of the hallmarks of the post-avant (I still love the unintended meaning of that phrase: "after the front.") I'd bet that explains why those who pursue such strategies become increasingly devoted to them, just as sports players respond more strongly ("hooked," the article says) to watching that sport than do non-players. The same applies, of course, to metricians and storytellers like me. But the other side is that all normal human beings play at narrative and rhythm. Doesn't make one better than the other in any aesthetic sense, but it has implications for just who the possible audience may be.