Mirror, mirror in my brain

Published 10:30 am Saturday, September 30, 2017

By Erin Smith

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? ~Henry David Thoreau

I recently saw the Broadway show “Wicked,” the origin story of the Wicked Witch of the West.

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When Elphaba, the heroine, is bullied because she has green skin, I wanted to punch the snotty little school kids who taunted her.

When she realizes she can levitate a broom, I squealed in excitement, jumping out of my seat when she flew.

When the Wiz learns of her death and realizes he was her biological father, Izzie slid her hand into mine and we both wept.

Whatever emotions were being displayed on stage were mirrored in our seats. We completely lost ourselves in the performance. And we were not alone.

When the curtain fell, thousands of people stood and cheered, some with tears still evident on their faces.

Why is experiencing art so powerful?

Neuroaesthetics is a term that refers to what happens in our brains when we encounter art.

Whether we are rocking out at a live music concert, studying a painting on a wall or watching dancers leap across a stage, our bodies respond to art in a visceral way that goes beyond simple entertainment.

The reason every culture in human history has created and appreciated art goes to our hardwired need for connection.

Our brains create meaning from art, deepening our perceptions and strengthening our ability to empathize with others.

In the 1990s, some Italian scientists studying primate brains noticed something interesting. When a monkey picked up a peanut, an area of the brain associated with pleasure lit up. But that’s not the interesting part. When the scientist picked up the peanut, the same thing happened. Basically, the same neurons fired when a monkey received a peanut and also when he watched someone else get a peanut!

Humans are wired similarly with something called mirror neurons, a type of brain cell that responds equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action. Science is discovering that our mirror neurons might be responsible for the cultivation of empathy.

The word empathy derives from the German word einfühlung and means “feeling into.” It refers to our ability to feel the emotions we perceive in others as if they were our own.

When Elphaba hurt or hoped, so did the audience. When she was angry, you could feel the collective clenching of jaws and fists as we readied our hearts to take down the Wizard.

Like a muscle, empathy can be strengthened by reading a great story, watching an engrossing play, singing along with Adele or losing yourself in the swirls of Van Gogh’s colors.

Art is a narrative and our brains crave the order and purpose that stories provide. Stories help us derive meaning from our lives.

Albert Einstein advised, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

All art is a fairy tale, an experience born of imagination and feeling. A narrative is low stakes emoting, as we feel the force of the intention without the actual pain or joy.

Empathetic beings are the happiest and most peaceful.

Only 1 percent of the population lacks the ability to experience empathy (if you guessed that 1 percent were psychopaths, you would be right).

When we experience empathy, our brain releases oxytocin, a hormone that nourishes our sense of belonging. Feeling empathy reduces stress and fosters resilience and creativity.

We are designed to seek meaning in our lives, to find purpose for our days. Empathy paves the way.

Sadly, we are seeing less empathy in our culture.

Research led by Sara H. Konrath (and published in Personality and Social Psychology Review) found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past decade. Social scientists point to the rise of “screen-related social isolation” for a correlating rise in narcissism and an empathy deficit.

Most of the technological apps we use to stay connected (like Facebook and Instagram) were designed by introverts who preferred online connection to being physically present with the person they are engaged with.

That’s why texts get misinterpreted so often. Without the actual person in front of us, we can’t use voice inflection and body language to truly decode the intent.

Mirror neurons fire more rapidly in a real-life situation as opposed to a screen-based interaction. That’s why art helps us build our compassion muscle. It asks us to be present, to be there with the feelings that are evoked.

We are also seeing a sad decline in reading. The number of adults who read literature for pleasure sank below 50 percent for the first time ever in the past 10 years, with the decrease occurring most sharply among teens and college-age adults.

I’m guessing Einstein is rolling over in his grave. If narrative is how we make sense of our world and feel compassion for others, then a generation of people who shun books for their phones means more self-absorption and less consideration of others.

What’s the answer? More art. More reading. More music. More theatre. More dance. Sadly, not more cuts to arts funding.

If we want to raise a generation of compassionate, decent human beings, we need to expose them to as much art as possible, in all its myriad versions.

Art is a friend that teaches us to be better, more loving people. It changes us, as the play “Wicked” reminds us, for good.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. She wants everyone to make friends with meditation, eat real food, move their bodies and hit the pillow a little earlier. When she’s not standing on her head, she enjoys being a wife, mother, dancer, reader, flower sniffer, guitar player and wine drinker. Send her a shout out at erin@theOMplace.net or play along at www.theOMplaceChannel.com.