It's All In Your Head: Mirror Neurons and Borderline Personality Disorder
I am always fascinated when my DBT group therapist goes into the science of psychology, human development, and the wonders of the mind. Yesterday, when I mentioned that I have have an over-empathetic mind, often taking on the emotions of others who express burdens, she explained that this is not pathological.
While having Borderline Personality Disorder, of course, adds to this with the complication of identity and boundary issues, it turns out that humans, primates, and many other animals naturally mimic others' behaviors through something called "mirror neurons."
(I've been sitting on the edge of my seat each time our therapist gets into these discussions with us -- so much so that I've felt inspired to apply to a masters program that focuses on psychology and writing. I'll keep you posted on that process. I'm in the school research stages and may be applying to a particular university soon!)
What are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons are impulse-conduction cells of the brain, spinal column, and nerves that react when a person (also present in many other animals) sees another person perform an action or experience an emotion (Wikipedia, 2012). The mirror neuron of the person observing reacts as if it, itself, were the one doing the action.
Scientist debate over the intended function of these mirror neurons. Some think they are designed to help us learn empathy, others to learn to mimic survival behaviors, some think it's for animals to understand the behaviors of other animals species, and still others are not sure.
I remember seeing an image like this in my undergraduate studies of the subject. It is of a human being sticking out his tongue at a tiny little monkey. In response, after a bit of observing, the monkey stuck his tongue out at the human. I actually tried this with a very young newborn baby in my Early Childhood Development practicum and was so delighted when the newborn baby also responded by sticking out her tongue.
Empathy and Mirror Neurons
The concern that I brought up in DBT group was my intense empathy for others when they talk about their problems and are visually distressed. Two people in a new processing group I'm in discussed issues around terminally ill loved ones. I noticed after a few moments that my expression was so sympathetic, and my mind went to the years when my father was in hospice.
When another group member talked about her struggle with food, I became very empathetic with her and connected her experience to my own with disordered eating.
According to researchers at Social Brain Lab, people who experience higher levels of empathy show more activity in the part of their brains responsible for mirroring (Jabbi, Swart, & Keysers, 2007). This might explain a lot!
What are your thoughts on mirror neurons? Can you relate to being highly empathetic to others? How do you feel your diagnosis of BPD contributes to this?
Thanks for reading.
Gross, L. (Photographer). (2006). Evolution of neonatal imitation. [Web Photo]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Makak_neonatal_imitation.png
Jabbi, Mbemba; Swart, Marte; Keysers, Christian (2007). "Empathy for positive and negative emotions in the gustatory cortex". NeuroImage34 (4): 1744–53. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.10.032
Wikipedia. (2012). Mirror neuron. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron