Sunday, September 19, 2010

Neural Mirroring & Watching the Olympics

Michael Phelps imitating a butterfly

Yesterday, I saw two boys racing down the sidewalk in my neighborhood, one on foot, one on a bicycle. Smiling, laughing, bumping into each other, they raised their arms and crossed an imaginary finish line. As they raised their arms, I, too, felt their joy, my cheeks lightened into a smile and even my shoulders and chest lifted slightly.

Across our little earth, images of Olympic athletes are bouncing through the skies and beaming down onto screens and into the brains and muscles of boys and girls of all ages. Never mind the medal count or the hyped drama, my body isn’t listening, it’s absorbing the dives, the jumps and leaps, the rhythms of legs and arms, the glowing eyes and faces of other bodies half a world away. Like those boys running down the street, the Olympians are dancing around in my mind and body, awakening my muscles, triggering emotions, and engaging my creative mind.

Human Bird or Olympic Athlete?

What’s happening? Why is my body responding in this way?

Neuroscientists call this sympathetic physical response of one body to another, neural mirroring. We absorb the patterns we see and feel as we witness the physical movements and emotions of another. Surprise, surprise scientists are confirming what we all know deep in our body: we are deeply affected physiologically by the world around us, especially those in our own species, and those close to us—our families, friends, and communities.

Neural pathways in the brain are constantly evolving and adapting to stimulation from the body’s experiences, needs, and amazingly from our imagination itself.

We go to a play or watch a dance performance or concert, and we come away enlivened, emotionally charged and challenged. We are not only affected by the performers and the patterns working in their bodies and minds that create their art, but we are also powerfully influenced by the emotions and patterns in the bodies around us.

So can images do this through TV? Of course. It’s not as strong as being next to someone in a yoga class opening their chest in a backbend so much so that your own back and chest ache for the release you’re feeling from them, but it’s happening. The key here is being sensitive and conscious of the feelings and sensations in your own body and, I would argue, how your imagination or mind is responding. Being aware of the imagination and using it to deepen feeling and emotion, actually is an adaptive device of the brain to stimulate the body.

Body plasticity is brain plasticity

Those boys, I witnessed in their imaginary world, are not only feeling the sensations and emotions of Olympic athletes, they are recreating them in their mind and replaying them in their bodies. How healthy, for them. and, for anyone who happens to walk by.

I’m always amazed at what happens when I practice yoga outside by the Lake. Invariably people walk by me and out of the corner of my eye, I see a hand rise over a head or a few twists of a torso, a forward bend suddenly in the middle of the beach. People are relaxed. They’ve taken off their shoes. They’re throwing balls for their dogs or watching their children making things in the sand. They’re breathing more deeply and the energy of the lake is lifting their spirits. Their bodies are alive and they see my body bending and diving into a sun salutation and sympathetically their muscles plead for the same. Or, is it the other way around? Perhaps it’s not me who is affecting them, but they who are making me feel more deeply into my own body? Or is the feeling mutual?

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