I’m really into podcasts, and am constantly on the hunt for new ones. Recently, when I finally exhausted my supply of Radiolab, I went on the prowl for science-based podcasts. As a sometime-scifi writer (my solo performance is the dystopian near future, after all), I inhale strange science facts like cocaine. Well, except it’s either visual or auditory, so I don’t use my nose so much. That’s a bad analogy.
I recently listened to this episode: Fiction, Reality’s Secret Master.
The episode discusses several studies relating to reading and narrative, and how our really incredible and completely awesome mirror neurons work to help us understand the minds of other people, as well as project behavioral assumptions onto animals, and potentially even inanimate objects. When we watch a tv show, our mirror neurons help us understand the characters’ situation based on their lines and actions. These neurons, though, don’t just make us sympathize – they fire off as though we were taking these characters’ actions ourselves. Another example: if you’re at a sporting event, and your team scores a goal, your mirror neurons fire off as though you kicked the ball into the goal yourself. Consequently, you are flushed with adrenaline and endorphins.
Mirror Neuron areas in the brain
In the podcast, one of Joe Biden’s “gaffs” was mentioned – he said that the sitcom “Will and Grace” helped educate America about gay people. Now, while this is a little silly on the face (especially since sitcoms run on wacky stereotypes), actually, it’s probably accurate. The more we see other ethnicities, cultures, genders, and sexualities represented as human beings, the more likely we are to be able to sympathize. Of course, the reverse is true as well – when we see “the other” demonized, we’re more likely to keep demonizing that group.
However, it strikes me that, since all art fires off our mirror neurons (as well as sporting events, the news, and just people-watching), this basically justifies the existence of theatre, movies, video games, poems, stories, paintings … everything. It’s brain exercise, and not just for the creator. It helps expand our experience without putting us in harm’s way. We can expand our empathy and therefore our social circle (which ultimately helps protect us), and expands our knowledge of the world (which helps us navigate situations we have not experienced directly). We’re so evolved to use our mirror neurons that we see narrative in shapes moving randomly (I can’t find the name of the study/example, but it is mentioned in the podcast).
This is why it is so insidious to cut arts funding. While we can experience the firing of mirror neurons in just about any situation (TV and video games being two forms of media we encounter all the time), if there is no training or support for artists in our culture, we lose tons of stories. We lose opportunities to fire off our mirror neurons and make ourselves smarter. We oppress traditionally underrepresented groups, because avenues to expand their horizons start to disappear. The only way to experience the creation of art becomes through buying expensive classes, which means that poorer socio-economic groups don’t get that experience and the gap between rich and poor – which is also a gap between minorities and whites, women and men, queer culture and hetero-normative culture – expands. Our options narrow as the moneyed class forces what is essentially propaganda down our throats, because they have control of media and we do not.
Alternatives are necessary, and it is necessary to have the protection (probably from government) to explore them, and show them to the public.
On a different note, I think I might put this on my business card: “I make you smarter by firing off your mirror neurons.”