(Copyright © 2009)

It is 5:12 A.M. I am standing with a group of 18 Native and non-native Americans on the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. We are in the clouds; it is raining. I am first to arrive… but not really the first. Three fire-tenders have been there all night, drumming to keep themselves warm and awake while keeping the fire. The others arrive at this sunrise without the sun. We circle the fire—and more particularly, the bed of glowing coals the fire-tenders have spread. The coals are pulsing orange; we in our rain gear are blue, green, brown, yellow, red. Three stand under black umbrellas. Rain or shine, we have permission from the National Park Service to welcome the sun, begin a new day, and spiritually prepare for the gathering of Tribal environmental leaders from across the country to start later that morning.

The fire-tenders bless themselves with a smoldering braid of sweet grass lit in the coals. They pass the braid over their heads and backs, arms and hands, legs and soles of feet, wafting the scented smoke over their bodies, clad as they are against the rain. Then they offer the sweet grass to each of us in turn and we bless ourselves in the same manner.

Those new to the ceremony carry on by imitation, doing for themselves as they have watched others do before them. Monkey see, monkey do, I thought to myself as I accepted the braid. But in rituals, performance is everything. If you don’t know your way, you are wise to mimic what others are doing. Then we each pinch a tuft of tobacco from a small basket, and hold it out of the rain as the fire-tenders sprinkle theirs on the coals while saying a prayer, and each of us follows the pattern. For my prayer, I say I am honored to have lived long enough to share in the fire ceremony with those gathered on the summit, including a pileated woodpecker chanting nearby. When all have spread their tobacco on the coals, and bent down to waft the smoke over themselves, the fire is put out and every trace removed as if it never had been.

Fire-Tender

But it had been, I was there, and the traces were lodged in my brain. Specifically, in the so-called mirror neuron system that translates evidence of the senses into action. Consciousness, at the junction of sensory and motor systems, is in on the translating. Whatever actions you pay particular attention to and are motivated to imitate, you can perform because mirror neurons are on the job. First discovered in macaque monkeys, mirror neurons were anticipated by William James who wrote, “every mental representation of a movement awakens to some degree the actual movement which is its object.” Thus enabling Russian babies in the presence of Russian speakers to learn how to imitate Russian (not Portuguese) vowels and consonants. And me to learn the proper way to waft sweet-grass smoke over my body in a fire ceremony atop Cadillac Mountain.

Some researchers conclude that mirror neurons enable us to infer intentions and even beliefs from the behavior of others, but I think that is a bit of a stretch. Angry looks and threatening gestures may well instill fear, but experience advises us to beware seemingly innocent situations as some kind of trap, which I see as due to interpretation, not sadder-but-wiser mirror neurons. Such neurons fire in our brains both when we perform particular acts and when we see (or hear) others performing the same acts—as if all brains were one brain, or are at least wired much the same way.

If someone else looks sad to us, we may be concerned or empathic, but looks alone do not convey the reason for that sadness which, until we understand the other’s situation, is a matter of conjectural interpretation. Look at football fans in opposite bleachers, one standing and shouting with glee while the other slumps in dejection—in response to the same play on the field. Or place yourself in the jury box witnessing one attorney presenting the facts of the case, then the opposing attorney presenting them quite differently and drawing a different conclusion. I think we should not portray mirror neurons as being smarter than they are. The situation in which they perform is every bit as important as the motor gestures themselves.

What mirror neurons do is drape sensory signals (heard, seen, or imagined) in motor clothing as if actor and beholder were the same person and could simply switch roles. But in the fire ceremony, even if I gave a reasonable imitation of a Native American performing a similar sequence of gestures, were our gestures the same or even equivalent? Considering our different backgrounds and understanding of those gestures, I was very much the novice going through certain motions without having the wit to know what I was doing. When the toddler says “dada,” he recognizes the referent he intends by that sound, but knows that referent in a very limited way compared to how Dada knows himself and what he would mean by making the same sound. The idea of male genetic parenthood is far beyond the horizon of the toddler’s small world.

In a neurological sense, mirror neurons are extremely well connected, and their signals bear overtones from other parts of the brain. They not only tie perception to concrete action, but are informed by intention, understanding, interpretation, speech, feeling, and judgment. The feel of the moment is very much a synthesis of many aspects of consciousness. I see the mirror neuron system as bridging between all parts of consciousness at the crucial juncture where sensory input leads to motor output in terms of specific behaviors judged appropriate to the life situation as currently represented in the brain and understood in the mind.

Picture an infant so stimulated that her excitement drives her to flap her arms up and down in wholehearted devotion to what is happening at the focus of her attention. She is excited because her mirror neuron system is excited—but has not yet developed a repertoire of fine-motor responses. Ready for liftoff, she makes like a bird. Think what lies ahead as she learns to suit her responses to whatever so excites her. Think of young Tiger Wood sitting in his chair watching his father practice his golf swing. Think of yourself learning to dance, throw a Frisbee, use chopsticks, or speak like a Valley Girl. Eventually you get to the master class where you pattern your behavior on a performance by the greatest mime-saxophonist-pitcher-poet-chef in the world!

Or else you settle for your halting imitation of their example and decide to live within your personal limitations by sticking to karaoke, restricting your Elvis imitation to Halloween, doting on celebrities, or following the latest fashions. I tried mightily to learn Tai Chi from a teacher who was so impatient with individual moves that he could only teach them in the full sequence of the long form by serving as an example of perfection, which, viewed from the back—or not viewed at all when I was facing away—triggered no response from my mirror neuron system and I had to give up, as I gave up jazz dancing because it was all happening too fast for me to keep to the beat.

The reason that apprenticeships and hands-on training work is due to mirror neurons firing in exactly the same way whether performing an action or observing others perform the same action. Motor planning and execution areas of the brain are involved either way. If you want to paint like Picasso, copy his portraits—each brush stroke exactly—to get inside his head (or let him into your head).

There are a lot of visualization exercises around today, striving to imagine a better future. Picturing such a result and then bringing it about may seem to be very different activities, but they are more closely linked than it seems. The connection is that many of the same mirror neurons are involved in both planning and then striving to realize that plan. To know where you are headed is half the battle; follow-through is the other half. You have a better chance of getting there if you can visualize where you’re going.

Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys, but reflecting on all the behaviors you have learned to execute through imitation will help you appreciate their role in human life. I didn’t just feel like an onlooker during the fire ceremony on Cadillac, I was a participant like the rest. Human see, human do. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything and now lead a larger life because I was there.

 

 

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(Copyright © 2008)

 

When the first astronauts looked down on the Earth from space, they were less than articulate in telling what they saw. Wow! Look at that! is how I remember their spontaneous reports. They were all but speechless. I made fun of their puny descriptions then, but now I believe they were so unprepared for the experience of looking down on Earth from space that they were almost overwhelmed by the emotions that came over them. In ordinary life, our language for strong emotions often consists of four-letter words. When under stress, we find that the language of rational thought is largely irrelevant. Emotional language is more a matter of curses, sighs, cries, and moans.

 

Or memorized lyrics—as in songs, hymns, anthems, and such. On stage, actors can eloquently speak their emotions because they have memorized their lines. One of the most haunting moments in music took place at the 1928 Remembrance Day Ceremony in Albert Hall when assembled veterans of World War I sang, “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” a song they all knew by heart. No sound is bigger than those moving voices.

 

But the language of emotional consciousness, I now realize, is made more for action than sentimental songs. When it comes to expressing feelings, words are only incidental. Usually, big actions are called for, like hitting the line, running as fast as you can, or making love, not little actions like talking, knitting, or building model planes. Which gets to the core of why we have them. Emotions are tools of survival in threatening situations. The finer details of culture emerges only once we get past them and have time to simmer down and relax. Emotions are based on hormones secreted into the blood when we are under some sort of stress and need to make a quick response.

 

Depression, on the other hand, seems to be a squelching of emotion resulting from not being able to act because we are held back when our blood tells us to get going. Perhaps the best thing to do when we can do nothing appropriate to our situation is to shut down and wait. In such circumstances, temporary depression might make its own kind of sense. Long-term depression, however, as a symptom of long-term inaction can lead to utter hopelessness and collapse. Short term stress gets us going; long-term stress can be lethal.

 

All of which is a prelude to what I want to write about in this post. The aftermath of my earlier blog about music consciousness (see Reflection 38).

 

I am writing a blog about music consciousness. I want to dispense with program music that tells a story as something entirely different. Peter and the Wolf is a good example of the confusion we get into when words and music are mixed together, as in songs, operas, and oratorios. In those media it is hard to tell if felt responses stem from the music, the words, or both (or neither; maybe it’s the costumes and scenery). I am looking for an example of music accompanied by something other than words. Like dance. Like ballet. How about Swan Lake? What’s that dance for the four little swans? The four cygnets? Fifty-five years ago when I was at Columbia, dance had a strong hold on me. I went to performances of Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet almost every week. I met my first wife while waiting in line to get into Sadler’s Wells at the Met. I search for Swan Lake on the Web, and one of the early options comes up, Bolshoi Swan Lake – Pas de Quatre Small Swans. The very thing! I would have said Cygnets or Little Swans, but that’s Russian translators for you. I click the link—and there is a video of a Bolshoi production of the Dance of the Small Swans. I realize immediately that I can’t use ballet as an example because so much of the meaning of the piece is conveyed by the dancers—the visual impression—not the music. The video starts on its own. Suddenly I’m there, in New York watching the cygnets cavort 55 years ago. Same dark stage, same white costumes, same music, same steps—same me. I watch, transfixed. I don’t breathe for two minutes. What am I unleashing here? I clamp my lips to avoid blubbering. This is beauty, this is power. Pure grace. No, I don’t say the words—I feel the movement, the music. The magic. My rational mind is reduced to a series of clichés. Wow. Here is the world of sights, sounds, and expectancy I plunged into when I moved from Boston to New York in 1952 when I was twenty. I choke up. The video is almost too much. I am stunned. Transported. Why not let go? But I can’t. The tension is unbearable. I know the dance by heart. It’s been inside me all these years, and I never once acknowledged it. Never turned it loose. Watching the four dancers, I see myself being wholly myself, or wanting to be, but embarrassment clamps down on my emotional self. Steeling my lips so not to show my emotions. To whom? To me—I’m the only one around. I am of two minds, one rational, the other emotional. As if the two parts of me hadn’t lived together all these years and come to terms. One had to “win” and squelch the other. I see it all. When the video stops, I sit at my laptop, overwhelmed.

 

For me, this was a Proustian moment. But instead of regaining consciousness of the past by tasting a piece of madeleine (French almond cake) dipped in tea, as Proust’s protagonist did in Remembrance of Things Past, I found it by clicking a link on the Web—which burned a hole in my here-and-now mind through which the past leapt into the now.

 

I immediately felt a compelling shock of resonance between my consciousness then and my consciousness now. As if several different parts of my brain danced to the same tune. Music was involved, but sight and motion were kindled at the same time. I wasn’t just viewing the past, I was actually there. I pictured brain waves humming in resonance in every quarter of my mind, giving one another mutual feedback and support.

 

Reflecting on the experience, I think resonance is the key to the emotions I felt. The coordinated movements of the four dancers revealed a clear physical resonance echoing the music. Each dancer was her own person, yet was sympathetically linked to the other three. If their motions had been identical, they would have been robots. Holding hands, they moved in sympathy one with another. And I was with them the whole time, both my past and present selves, sharing in the discipline and the resonance.

 

Such states of resonance are a big part of consciousness. That’s how we learn, by being with others, watching, then imitating them as if reflecting their inner selves. We make fun of such imitative behavior, calling out, “monkey see, monkey do.” But we all play that game. Watch any two people in an intense conversation, each unconsciously mimicking the behavior of the other. I see it in myself. My partner crosses her arms, then so do I. I lean back in my chair, then so does she. We take turns being with others by translating their image into our posture. If we see it, we can do it. I feel sure that has a lot to do with feelings of closeness in families, friendships, and communities.

 

If you have doubts, take a look at the Beatles’ Hey Jude video on the internet. By the umteenth repetition of the chorus—“da, da, da, dadidada, dadidada, Hey Jude,” your brain waves will be synchronized with the band and their audience, and you will know exactly what resonance feels like. It’s O.K. to show emotions if body language tells you everybody else feels the same.

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