Monkey See, Monkey Feel

July 31, 2008

Monkey See, Monkey Feel
written for the Robson Square Author Readings Series

Have you ever watched someone get clubbed in the testicles and found yourself cringing abruptly, whether you’re a man or a woman?

Or have you ever witnessed someone go under the knife in the operating room and as the doctor splits open the skin, you start to feel nauseous and need to look away?

And have you ever noticed a stranger about to make the biggest mistake of their life and you feel yourself crying out “NO! Don’t do it!”

Conversely, when your favorite team scores the final winning goal, do you ever jump out of your seat with elation, screaming “we won, WE won”?

Or after the hero of the film vanquishes the evil villain in the most spectacular martial arts showdown, do you ever leave the theatre with a sense of victory in your heart, pride in your veins and some karate moves pulsing in your body?

And when you observe a formidable display of beauty and skill, like when the dancer or singer hits the peak of their form, be it a perfect triple axel jump or a climax of musical brilliance, does your body not fly in similar exultation?

Why on earth do we respond so emotionally and physically, when these things are happening to someone else? Is it empathy or innate compassion? Is it the cathartic effect of an active imagination? Is it… monkey see, monkey feel?

Well, according to research in the field of neurology, it is. Since the 1990’s, neuroscientists have identified sets of neuron circuits in the brain called Mirror Neurons. These sets of neurons seem to carry templates for specific actions, intentions and feelings.

When they studied the brain activity of macaque monkeys, they saw that the identical sets of mirror neurons would fire whether the monkey was performing the action or simply watching others doing the same action. Mirror neurons are capable of producing a direct internal experience and thus bring an understanding from mere observation.

Further investigation showed that the mirror neurons also responded strongly to the intentions and emotional components of an action. Motions that had clear context, intention or emotion, activated the neurons more intensely than actions that had no context, intention or emotion. When they transferred the experiments to see if humans had similar mirror neurons, the same results came in.

For example, when volunteers smelled a repulsive odor and experienced the feeling of disgust, certain parts of the brain were activated. When these volunteers watched a film clip of someone else expressing disgust, the same neural structures were engaged. The expression of disgust has important survival significance because it is an indication that whatever was tasted or smelled was not edible and possibly poisonous. If your friend Indiana Jones scoops some monkey brain into his mouth and gags with revulsion, you might suddenly feel compelled to stick with the vegetarian selection.

So yes, monkey see, monkey feel. This mirror system lets us experience what others are feeling and hence we gain a more visceral comprehension. Besides being a survival tool, it offers insight into 3 important human functions. First: it reveals some of the mechanics of how we learn. We don’t just learn by doing, we also learn by observing because the mirror neurons allow us to conceive of the action from within. Second: this built-in empathy allows humans to truly relate as social creatures. Friendship, love and emotional bonds are more easily forged and solidified through this tangible connection. The phrases “I feel you” or “I know what you are going through” or “I’m laughing with you” gain a whole new dimension of significance.  Third: These mirrors appear to be noteworthy biological factors which support spiritual growth and evolution. As we literally feel other’s pain or pleasure, we can make increasingly elevated moral choices not based on potential punishment from an agent of authority, but from a place of mutual understanding. When we look back at the poor guy who had his balls smacked, the sports team who won or the amazing performer who inspired us to new heights, we can now comprehend that we are physically and emotionally wired to share the experience. For better or worse, in sickness and in health, in love and war we are truly connected.

Perhaps the concept of “broken mirror” neurons can throw some light regarding the emotional disconnection or lack of empathy apparent in children with autism and in other cases of anti-social behavior, with the extreme being sociopathic conduct. We cannot underestimate how much our ability to sense other people’s suffering is a crucial element in the development of ethical or compassionate behaviour. Clearly, emotional intelligence is separate from IQ intelligence. The serial killer known as the Santa Cruz Strangler had an IQ of 160, a certified genius. When author and scholar Leonard Wolf asked him how he could murder these people, was there no pity at all for his victims? The strangler said that he had turned that part of himself off, because if he’d been able to feel their distress, he could not have killed them.

Perhaps the research has not yet looked at how we manage to de-activate our mirror neurons. Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman agrees that our default wiring is to help others. But, he speculates that we can disable or enable compassion depending on where our focus is placed. If we are overly pre-occupied with ourselves, we do not notice another person’s predicament or pain. If we can open up our awareness to include others, then our empathy can be engaged. He tells the story of how he noticed a man slumped on the side of the subway station during rush hour, while hundreds of people stepped over the man without a glance or reaction. However, the moment that he stopped to speak to this man, many others stopped as well to offer their help. All it took was one person to stop and notice.

What other times have we witnessed suffering from the corners of our eyes and continued on our merry way? On what occasions do we choose to ignore the firing synapses of our built-in empathy? As we look at history, we can see how humanity has collectively looked the other way while entire cultures were subjected to slavery, starvation, degradation or extermination. From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the cotton fields of the American South, from the gas chambers of Auschwitz to the devastation of Iraq, these are places where people were being stripped of their humanity yet onlookers did not want to look at this kind of nakedness. Perhaps we prefer the Playboy channel?

However, when 9-11 hit America, the whole world was watching. The western media was more than happy to show us repeated scenes of terror and get our mirror neurons all fired up, with no place to go except down. Our innate desire to help was immediately channeled into a campaign of fear. Fear, I’m afraid, is the other way we can disengage our natural compassion. When we are gripped in the tentacles of terror, it appears that we can override our empathy and ignore the pain of the so-called “enemy”.

Now let us look at a different historical event, one where the hand of fear was tucked away and instead, the flowers of empathy were allowed to bloom: The Tsunami of December 26, 2004, one of the worst natural disasters in history. It struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand with a heavy blow, with an energy release that was 1500 times greater than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The tsunami also struck the heart of humanity across the globe with the force of potent compassion. Communities across the world united and collected roughly $7 billion in humanitarian aid. In fact, donations from the public often outnumbered the money from governments or charities. For example, in the UK alone, the public donated about 330 million pounds (nearly $600 million US) which outweighed the donation by the UK government.

But the world media would still have us look the other way. There are strategies in place to keep us either very entertained or very afraid. If we are busy with the next big fad or if we are too busy struggling to survive, then we have no time or energy to pay attention to the man who has fallen to the wayside. If the four pillars of Individualism, Consumerism, Capitalism and Narcissism can hold up the illusion that all is well, then we can keep trotting on the treadmill of distraction with our blinders on. Monkey don’t see, monkey don’t feel.

Buy this! Sell that! Do whatever it takes! Get to the top! Survival of the fittest! Every man for himself! Even the incredible popularity of Reality TV is a reflection of our society’s pre-occupation with the epic struggle to win as an individual, at all costs and at all odds. It is about division and separation. Me against You. There is a war in our psyches and there is only ONE winner in mind.

Yet amidst all this separation, there are some very deep communal experiences happening. Discontentment and disillusionment keep sprinkling into our awareness. Despite our ability to look away, despite our blessed distractions, despite our so-called ignorance…I propose that we do feel everything. No matter how much we occupy ourselves with the bills, the job, the family and the busy details of our individual lives, I believe that we can feel the rest of the world on some other level. Some might consider this a new age idealistic notion but many visionary scientists have talked of the collective energetic field that is shared by all species of life. UK author Rupert Sheldrake coined the term morphogenetic field in his work as a biologist and there have been many studies involving the psychic connection between plants, animals and humans. In quantum physics, divided molecules continue to respond to each other despite incredible separation in time and space. What happens in the field, stays in the field? On some level of consciousness, I trust that we are feeling everything that is happening in the world or in the cosmos for that matter.

And in that realm of awareness where everything is felt, I believe our society is trapped in a collective experience of shame: shame that we haven’t paid enough attention, shame that we haven’t done enough, shame that we’ve been subjugated by fear, shame that we’ve been engrossed in distractions, shame that we haven’t been standing in the fullness of our power and integrity. How do we live with all this shame?

Perhaps a better question to ask is: what is the function of shame? Physiologically, the archetypal body position of shame is one of fear, submission or surrender. If you are a dog, you put your tail between your legs. If you are a human, you hang your head low and avert your eyes to the ground. In the wild, you would be killed. In a more civil society, you would be enslaved.

Every emotional state can be measured as a viable frequency (energy moving in cycles per second) and in David Hawkins’ book Power versus Force, SHAME is placed at the very bottom of the scale of emotions because it was the lowest of all frequencies. It is the worst state that a human being can occupy because energetically, it is the closest to death that we can get. When someone is experiencing long-term shame, the worldview is one of misery, the prevailing feeling is of humiliation, and the predominant thoughts are of suicide.

However, shame is not necessarily an emblem of humiliation or a flag of surrender. I see it as the great messenger of a major turning point. For under the weight of shame, we are pushed to make a life or death decision: do or die. Now if this isn’t a precursor for a quantum leap of evolution, then it’s at least the catalyst for a leap of action. In fact, I propose that shame is a paradoxical spiritual tool for pushing us upwards, even as we are wallowing in the rock bottom. When our faces are smeared in the dirt, when we are left without devices or distractions, when we are laying in the pool of our own helplessness, the painful reflection can push us to one of 2 choices: to die in this pit or to rise up from the mire with dignity. Like the sacred lotus flower, we can transcend the muddy origins and reveal our true nature, one of infinite grace and beauty.

If the desire to live is thus resurrected, then as we stand up, we pass through the initiation of Anger. Psychology states that anger is an expression of emotion that actually lasts only a few minutes at a time. In fact, all emotion is actually of a very short duration. Emotion is ENERGY in motion and if we were to be fully present with whatever emotion was moving through us, it would pass relatively quickly. It is our fear that can lock it into our bodies. As we contract and refuse to allow the emotion to complete its flow, it lodges into our cellular structure and begins to wreak havoc. If we can release fear or judgment and simply allow the feeling to pass through us, then we can process any emotion in a safe and timely manner.

Anger serves an evolutionary purpose as well. It moves us to action, it compels us to make changes, it brings a dose of revitalizing energy. It leads us out of shame and begins to reconnect us with our inherent strength and convictions. This is a great healing. Whereas Shame is the seat of self-loathing, Anger is the ticket back onto the train of self-respect and the destination is Pride. Pride is the reward when you can lift yourself out of shame. Pride is the landmark that shows you have overcome a struggle. So far, we have been so focused on the weaknesses of the human beast that we have started to abhor its very footprint. Instead, if we can focus on the essential beauty of humanity, then we can begin take pride as a collective, as a species and as guardians of this sacred planet. Only when we can take pride in who we are, can we begin to live in integrity and compassion. It is our focus that has been misplaced. Instead of a narcissistic absorption with the mini-me, let us reconnect to the greater We.

Another quantum leap is occurring right about now. There is a growing movement that has decided it will use the power of peace to move us forward. It is a rising consciousness that is reaching a critical mass and it proclaims that we are ONE. We are bonded together in this infinite field, sensing and feeling each other in the most minute ways. Mirror neurons are but one biological piece of this puzzle which is beginning to reveal a vision of humanity that is kinder and gentler.

A healer once told me that she felt it was Love that held the bonds of our atomic structures together. What bond is stronger than love itself? Well, science may prefer to call it zero point energy, the stuff that supposedly permeates the field and is holding this entire matrix of reality together. Like it or not, we do live in a matrix which connects us to each other on all levels: from quantum space to outer space. We cannot escape what happens in the Middle East. We cannot run from the ramifications of our own ghettos and disenfranchised. They are us, we are them. The internet itself is a manifestation of the mirror neural net, where we can look into the lives of others and feel compassion for what is happening on the planet. We are living in a reality that keeps reflecting the vibrations that exist within each of us. The wars that occur outside are amplifications of the battles inside each of our minds.

Thankfully, the new consciousness that is rising is guiding us past the confusing neural pathways of the brain and into the vaults of the heart. For in the heart, we will find that there is no conflict. There is simply a deep knowing. There is only the wish to unite, to create harmony. There is a clear and unfettered vibration of love that is not a mere ideal, but a tangible presence. Inside this unified field of the heart, we like the idea of co-creation instead of competition. We relish the idea of equality instead of hierarchy. We are not afraid to see each other. We are not afraid to look in this mirror, because it is LOVE itself that looks back upon us. So let those mirror neurons keep firing because Monkey see, Monkey feel.

~ little woo, July 31, 2008
(No monkeys were harmed in the writing of this piece.)

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