Of mirrors and identities…

आत्मौपम्येन सर्वत्र समं पश्यति योऽर्जुन |

सुखं वा यदि वा दु:खं स योगी परमो मत: ||

ātmaupamyena sarvatra samaṁ paśhyati yo ’rjuna

sukhaṁ vā yadi vā duḥkhaṁ sa yogī paramo mataḥ

Bhagavad Gīta 6.32

 I regard them to be perfect yogis who see the true equality of all living beings and respond to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were their own.

If you stick out your tongue at a baby, she would stick out her tongue as well. In fact, all babies learn through mimicking. Have you also noticed how your own heartbeat races when you see Virat Kohli at the crease, poised to take the winning shot in a cricket match? Or when someone yawns, you feel like yawning as well?

Turns out, this mimicking of actions and feelings is due to the presence of ‘mirror neurons’ – the brain cells that activate when we see someone doing something. For example, if you see someone smile, the mirror neurons in your brain light up – and the same neurons light up when you smile as well. 

Christian Keysers, a leading mirror neuron researcher says ” what happens is that when we witness others’ facial expressions, we activate the same in our own motor cortex, but we also transmit this information to the insula, involved in our emotions. When I see your facial expression, I get the movement of your face, which drives the same motor response on my face, so a smile gets a smile. The motor resonance is also sent on to your own emotional centers, so you share the emotion of the person in front of you.”

In other words – we are able to feel what others feel.

Now comes the fun part. Neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran says that the only reason you feel that you have a distinct identity is because your pre-frontal cortex – the most recently evolved region of the brain – inhibits your mirror neurons. For example, lets say that you see someone cutting vegetables and accidentally slice her finger. Your mirror neurons would immediately activate – but your pre-frontal cortex examines signals from your own finger, and determines that all is well. If your fingers were anaesthetised, and unable to send an OK signal back to your brain, you would feel the same pain as her!

Daniel Goleman, in his book – Social Intelligence – the new science of human relationships, concludes that “examination of the sense organs tells us that the senses, though wondrous as they are, are limited. Only a short section of light is visible to the human eyes and many frequencies that other species hear elude our ears. Our perceptions do not always depict reality. We tend to take things like air and water for granted until we are starved of them. Realization of significance of ordinary things is real knowledge or enlightenment. Our senses—designed for survival—tell us that creatures are separate but new knowledge of mirror neurons shows that creatures are wirelessly connected through emotion and thought.

In short, we are more deeply connected to each other, that we realise.

What science says today, the scriptures have been saying for thousands of years. The distinction of I, the identity that we carry, is unreal and limited. 

We are a collective consciousness, and we ought to start seeing ourselves in everybody, and everybody in ourselves. 

When we see ourselves in every living being on the planet in this manner, it is natural to be compassionate to all. You feel what others feel, and to think negative of others is to think negative of your own self. This kind of realisation can only lead to postivity – a world where we are more at peace with everyone and everything, and in turn, with our own self.