Mirror Neurons in the Communion of Saints

As I saw the dynamics at play, I suddenly realized how mirror neurons add perspective to a mystery of our faith.

Welcome to article 24 of a weekly series on the formation journey of Br. Josh, MIC, a second-year seminarian at the Marian House of Studies in Steubenville, Ohio. It is the continuation of Br. Josh's previous column, "Novice Notes."

By Br. Josh, MIC

I sat down at a long table in our Refectory at 3:50 AM and opened my laptop to watch some online Psychology lectures for Human Development 1. The lectures were about infant emotional development. 

Dr. Breuninger described how a baby feels what their mommy feels through the mother’s tone of voice and face expression. A baby has the ability to match their mother’s mood and feelings in face-to-face interactions.

Dr. Breuninger assigned a video explaining how mirror neurons accomplish this. 

The video showed sports fans intensely involved in their team’s plays, with expressions of pain at moments of failure and delighted enthusiasm with successes. Such intense emotional involvement is incomprehensible to people who aren’t into sports.

“It’s just a game!” they say. 

Empathy and emotions
In another video, a man walks along a sidewalk carrying a tall, unstable pile of boxes in his arms. Passersby look at him in concern and discomfort. Why? They’re empathetically, emotionally feeling his situation. 

Researchers studying monkeys discovered that when a monkey sees a human perform some action that the monkey can relate to, neurons in the monkey’s motor cortex fire as though the monkey had performed or experienced this action itself. Swiftly, the researchers determined that humans have the same ability. 

We have clusters of what are called “mirror neurons” on both sides of our brains allowing us to strongly relate to and in a way “feel” what other people feel. If I splash my hand with hot coffee, you will wince as though in pain yourself. That’s because your mirror neurons allow you to closely relate to what I’m experiencing and feel it. People suffering from autism have fewer mirror neurons, and consequently a diminished capacity to emotionally relate to other people’s feelings. [St. Thomas Aquinas held that emotions stem from brain activity whereas we direct ourselves with our free will.]

People jumping up and down with excitement over their sports team’s score are “wired in” to what their team is feeling; it is as though they themselves “made the score.” If they know the rules and have played a bit themselves, they can relate and their mirror neurons inwardly reflect their team’s experiences. [Christians are encouraged to imaginatively “put themselves in others’ shoes,” building habits that deepen empathy.]

As I saw the dynamics at play, I suddenly realized how mirror neurons add perspective to a mystery of our faith.

Mystery of our Faith
Catholic Tradition teaches that one day, the faithful departed will enjoy the resurrection of their bodies. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that in Christ, “‘all of them will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear,’ but Christ ‘will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body’” (CCC 999). Our physical bodies will be glorified.

One of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s favorite books was The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life by Fr. Charles Arminjon. Fr. Arminjon writes about souls in Heaven, “How, then, shall I describe the ineffable intercourse in which the elect will open their hearts to one another, that fraternal, intimate conversation in which, at every moment, in their celestial language they will convey to each other the captivating emotions of their hearts?” He continues:

Each will be rich in the richness of all, each will thrill in the happiness of all. Just as the creation of a new sun would double the fires which burn the air, so each new sun in the city of God will increase the measure of our own bliss, with all its happiness and glory. Again, just as mirrors, placed opposite one another, are not impoverished by the mutual reflection of their rays, but, rather, the images are multiplied and each of the mirrors reflects, in its own ambit, the light and the objects portrayed in the ambit of all - so, in the same way each of the elect will reflect the rays of his brightness upon all the others.

Father Arminjon even uses the word “mirrors” to convey how we will rejoice in one another.

As my professor explained how mirror neurons allow us to emotionally share one another’s experiences in this life, I realized that when these neurons are glorified, they must all the more allow us to penetrate one another’s life experiences and rejoice in one another’s triumphs and bliss. 

It delighted me to ponder how the biological mechanism behind human communion in this life will likely explode our horizons in the world to come. 

Next: "Sliver of Light."
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