Mimetic Resonance

Xenia1If we desire through the desires of other people, do we have any freedom in our desires, or are our desires determined by the desires of others? And then are other people’s desires determined by ours? This starts to look like a vicious circle, similar to the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry where nobody started the fight; it seems that it had no beginning and maybe will have no end. Actually, this vicious circle of determining each other’s desires undergirds the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry. Nobody starts a cycle of desire; it was already there before it started, or so it seems. (See Human See, Human Want.)

Questions of free will and determinism are the staple of philosophy, often starting with Philosophy 101. Most of us are humiliated at any notion of not being totally free in our desires and our actions. After all, many of our ancestors fought for freedom and many of us are still fighting for it. Besides, if we are not free in our actions, we are not responsible for what we do and we can’t hold anybody accountable for anything. On the other hand, we there are well-known factors that seem to compromise freedom. Psychoanalysis often suggests we are determined by our subconscious, at least until we become more conscious of what is there. Social and environmental forces can greatly shrink options for many. St. Paul writes about how we are slaves to sin unless freed by Christ. What about mimetic desire?

Mimetic desire is often presented in small scenarios such as two people in a bookstore converging on the same book on the sale table. Were both determined by mimetic desire beyond any free will? In the broader scheme of things, many people model many desires to us to the extent that we simply cannot imitate all of them all of the time. That is, there is a lot more going on than two people converging on the sale table. Do we choose what model to follow when there are many of them? It seems likely that in such cases we do make choices, or at least we can and do make them some of the time. To the degree that mimetic desire is deterministic (if it is at all), the desire modeled by the most people will likely win out, or the desire modeled by the person with the greatest impact, such as a parent or best friend will have the strongest effect, maybe even a determinative one. If most of my friends like Mozart, chances increase that I will like Mozart. But then why do I hang out with a Mozart crowd instead of a Led Zeppelin crowd? Of course, this question only applies if both crowds are moving about in my environment.

One can speculate endlessly about such questions but I am going to cut to the chase with a suggestion that gives us a sense of direction for approaching them. The way mirror neurons seem to work is that they resonate with the visible intentions of others. (See Mirroring Desires) These intentions are fueled by desires. This resonance happens on a pre-conscious level. That is, we resonate with the desires of others before we know it is happening, and maybe we never realize it is happening. Our environments are complex and that means that we are resonating with many desires. Many of us working with Girard’s thought call this a field of desires, using an analogy with the gravitational field in Einstein’s physics. Just as moving objects exert a force on other moving objects, desires in a field move other desires in that field.   At this level, I wonder if “mimetic desire” is actually the best term for this phenomenon. Are we necessarily desiring what others are desiring at this stage? Maybe, at least in some cases. But maybe not. I suggest that we use the term “mimetic resonance” for this stage of interacting with the desires and intentions of others. This pinpoints the reality that all of these desires are exerting an influence on us while our desires are influencing them in return.

This mimetic resonance tends to be pre-conscious but it is possible to cultivate a greater awareness of this resonant mimetic field through self-discipline. Of course, the more people who model this self-discipline, the better the chances that I might. These resonances may pull us primarily in one direction or they might pull us in many, depending on how homogeneous or heterogeneous the environment. Sooner or later, usually sooner, we have to act on some of these ambient desires and that is where it is more meaningful to speak of “mimetic desire,” even if this mimesis is still not conscious. So when one person reaches for the book on the sale table that another had just looked, and the first person becomes more interested in the book than before, we are seeing mimetic desire in action, even if neither believe they area imitating the other.

So let’s consider introducing “mimetic resonance” into our vocabulary?

Mirror Neurons Revisited

Xenia1Although the title The Myth of Mirror Neurons make cause one to think it, this book does NOT deny the existence of mirror neurons. (See Mirroring Desires.) The myth the author talks about is a serious overrating of what mirror neurons can do in human beings. The discovery that the same neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fire when they do an action or see the action done, such as grabbing a banana remains intact. It is the extension of the motor simulation to explaining human language and imitation that Hickock contests. Two historical points: 1) Up to the discovery of mirror neurons, the computational system of the brain was somewhat overrated; 2) the discovery of mirror neurons triggered a revival of the highly discredited motor theory of language skills in humans. Hickock explains at length how the same problems that discredited the motor theory of language remain in force, notwithstanding the difficulty of killing zombies. He discusses the evidence for high-level computational processing in the human brain in language use and in imitation. What mirror neurons do is ground the computational work in the brain in the motor areas of the brain. Hickock suggestss that mirror neurons seem to be about the same in macaques and humans but macaques do not talk and they do not imitate very much–certainly not anywhere near on a human skill. Hickock discusses autism and the theory that it is caused by a deprivation of mirror neuron activity. Hickock gives reasons why this does not work as part of a broader questioning of all deprivation theories of autism. In its place, Hickock cites evidence that autism is caused by overload in many areas. It is well-known that autistic persons are hypersensitive to sound and other sensory inputs such as certain colors. There is also growing evidence that autistic persons are hyper-sensitive to the other people; that is, they have an overload of empathy that is overwhelming rather than a lack. Where we seem to end up, for the time being anyway, is a mirror neuron system that grounds a complex computational cognitive set up apps (to use the computer analogy). For those interested in René Girard’s thought who see the discovery of mirror neurons as explaining Girard’s notions of mimetic desire: mirror neurons don’t do as much as the hype has suggested but they are very much in our bodies and they do play a role. The instinctive reaction to stimuli still seems to point to the preconscious element of mimetic desire, or at least part of it. The paradigm that Hickock is moving us toward suggests that it is not mirror neurons but the explosion of cognitive skills in the brain that takes humans out of instinct into learning by experience. Imitation, so fundamental to those exploring Girard’s thought, takes over from what instinct did in animals. Those skilled in neurology and related issues might found it useful to follow up this notion to see if it holds significant explanatory value. In any case, everyone who has been excited about mirror neurons and especially those who have cited the discovery as helpful to understanding humans should read this book to see where at least some scientists are now taking it. Hickock hasn’t just razed the barn; he has also called in the carpenters.

Liturgical Animals (3): Stories and Ritual

eucharist1Ever since stories started to be told it has been known that we resonate with them and with the actions of the characters at a very deep level. Aristotle famously called it catharsis where our own emotions are purified when we identify with the emotions of a character on stage. Girard’s theory of mimetic desire gives us increased awareness of the phenomenon. It is no accident that Girard discovered that the best novelists and playwrights had discovered it, not least Sophocles who had inspired Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. (See Human See, Human Want.)

The discovery of mirror neurons adds further scientific and anthropological understanding to the way we resonate with stories. (See Mirroring Desires.) Realizing that our mirror neurons are activated by the intentions of others, we now know that the actions of actors on stage or on the screen also activate our mirror neurons. This is why we are so affected by what they do and most particularly what they desire. By identifying with a thief who is the protagonist of a story, we easily find ourselves desiring the thief’s success although in real life we would normally not desire that at all. But then again, perhaps the story has revealed a hidden desire to steal successfully. Or, perhaps a desire that wasn’t there has been created by the thieving action. Or a combination of both.

This is where the debate about whether or not violence or any reprehensible actions should be allowed in movies or on the stage of even in books. Does the violence observed or read about make one more violent or does it cause a catharsis, thus acting as a safety valve that prevents violence in real life? As far as I can tell, the answer goes both ways. After the Columbine school shooting, a video game was blamed for motivating the killers to go on a shooting spree, but this accusation overlooks the huge number of boys in the same age bracket who did no such thing. What we are left with, I think, is the need for us to take some responsibility for what we watch and read and more important, for how we react to them. For some, watching cops and robbers programs are mild entertainment. For others, it is more a thrill of surrogate righteous violence. If it is the latter, is this surrogate thrill enough or does it lead to inflicting violence against the “bad” guys in real life and feeling righteous about it? Or, do we act these feelings of righteous indignation without knowing what we are doing? Which puts us in the position of those who crucified Jesus.

Which brings us back to liturgy. It is worth noting that Greek plays were performed as parts of religious festivals, making the expulsion of Oedipus, for example, a liturgical event. To this day, plays and classical concerts often have a quasi-liturgical atmosphere with dimmed houselights and norms for audience decorum similar to what is usually expected in church. The more raucous and extroverted actions at rock concerts and Pentecostal services are liturgical in their own right with different liturgical norms. The thing is, liturgies and plays and concerts all stimulate the same mirror neurons in similar ways.

In Christian worship, the liturgical action is bound up with stories about Israel and most particularly, the story of Jesus. The stories are drawn out in the readings from scripture and the central story of Jesus, the Paschal Mystery, is compressed in the Eucharist where the story is fed to us literally in the bread and wine. Listening to the Word activates the mirror neurons, hopefully making us identify with the heroes and heroines of faith and most particularly with Jesus. Even from ancient times, certain people have been held up as good examples to imitate. As for Jesus settling a good example, since he compared himself to a burglar at one point, we can feel naughty and subversive in following his example and yet also feel righteous about it (Mt. 24;43). The pitfall is that we might identify with the owner of the house, and so try to keep Jesus out so that our lives aren’t subverted and turned upside down. This is just one example of how a story can twist us around in several directions, leaving us to wonder which end is up.

In general, plays and concerts are not repetitious the way the Eucharist is, which tells the same old story time after time to make it sink more deeply into us each time. It should be noted, though, that many people like to hear the same symphonies time after time and some people have favorite movies they see more times than they can count. Children have a ritual sense with their favorite bedtime stories that they want to hear night after night at the same time each night. In the Paschal Mystery, there is disclosure of the deepest truths about the way we humans live but also how we ought to live and could live by absorbing the character of Jesus. This is a story that never ends.

Connecting our Desires

vocationersSayingGrace1If mimetic desire, grounded in our mirror neurons, holds us all together whether we like it or not, why are we human beings so far apart and alienated from each other? Perhaps the catch is: “whether we like it or not.” If we don’t like being connected with the desires of other people, we will either claim ownership of our desires and dare anybody to challenge this ownership or try to expel the other. Both claiming ownership or expulsion only lock us tightly in rivalry with them so that our desires don’t connect. Instead they crash into each other into a soup boiling over so that nobody gets anything except more rivalry for the sake of rivalry. [See Mirroring Desires below if you haven’t read it already.]

In the history of race relations between blacks and whites in the U.S., from the standpoint of while people, we have had ownership through the institution of slavery and expulsion through segregation such as Jim Crow Laws or what one might call “social custom.” Those of us who deplore such attitudes and their results tend to expel racists, convinced that they deserve it. There is a dangerous tendency to believe that rivalry is a good thing in a righteous cause. Unfortunately, righteousness with this attitude is self-righteousness and rivalry in a good cause still makes that cause disappear in through over-involvement with our rivals.

There is an even more insidious problem here, however. It is well-known that the people who most strongly deplore others for certain actions or attitudes are often disturbingly prone to at least the temptations to the same actions and attitudes. Although statistics consistently estimate that roughly six times as many white people than blacks commit drug offenses, ten times as many blacks are sentenced to prison for drug offenses. All the while, there is consistent denial from those involved in the justice system that there is any racial bias affecting this situation. If these denials are as sincere as, to a chilling degree, I fear they are, then there is a lot of preconscious racial bias circulating like a plague. Speaking for myself as I confessed in Recovering Racists, I think that we all have a serious need of becoming more aware of our preconscious attitudes.

This post isn’t just about race relations; it’s about human relations. Our connections to the desires of other people can attract us to some but repel us from others. We tend to find ways to feel righteous about being repelled by some people but we are often rationalizing our preconscious reactions without ever actually thinking about them. Other posts on this blog and my book Tools for Peace look at spiritual practices for living with mimetic desire constructively. On technique is what moral theologians traditionally call a moral examen. This examen needs to be focused on our preconscious reactions to people so as to make them more conscious. This gives us the chance to do something constructive with them. One thing I find helpful is to look a person in the eye. That can easily transform the person before us.

Mirroring Desires

beanBagsIt’s no surprise to be told that neurons fire inside your brain when you decide to pick up a banana and again when you actually pick up the banana. What might surprise some people is to be told that exactly the same neurons fire when you see somebody else reach for a banana and then pick it up. This was not the kind of thing neuroscientists were looking for or expecting to find. Like many of the most significant scientific discoveries, this one was the result of serendipity. An experimenter who was analyzing the firing of neurons in a macaque monkey left the probes in its brain while taking a short break to have a snack. When he picked up a banana, the monkey’s neurons fired the same neurons that fired when the monkey picked up a banana. So began the following up of an exciting discovery.

The prime importance here is the firing of neurons based on intention. The neurons don’t wait until somebody actually picks up the banana. All it takes is for somebody to reach for the banana in such a way as to convey the intention of picking it up. If a person draws the hand away at the last second or tries to pick it up and drops it, the same neurons have fired. However, show a cartoon of a stick figure reaching for a banana and these neurons do not fire. The action has been portrayed but the live intention has not. Scientists call the neurons that fire under these circumstances “mirror neurons” because the neurons are mirroring the displayed intentional behavior.

This discovery seems to confirm, or at least add credence to, René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire, the notion that we imitate the desires of other people, often at a pre-conscious level.  (See Human See, Human Want) As I think about this exciting discovery, I would have to say that this neuronal mirroring of others’ intention does not, in itself, indicate imitating desire, but it does indicate very strongly that we automatically resonate with the intentions of other people at a deep physiological level, and these intentions are grounded in desire. Far from being individual blocks of personality shooting personal desires out at the world, our desires are wired in our bodies to resonate with the desires of others and vice versa. Our mirror neurons make sure that we live in a web of personal desires surrounding us.

Mirror neurons build a subtle and deep connection between all of us. We live in the midst of these connections whether we like it or not and these connections also connect us to God who created us, mirror neurons and all.

(Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni is an accessible and absorbing account of the discovery and ramifications of this exciting discovery.)