Have you ever stopped, just for a moment, and hit rewind on the videotape of your life? Rewind to when you were an infant – just minutes old.
Your brain is probably recreating a scene from a TV show or movie, inserting you and your parents as the main characters. My mental image is something like this:
With a little of this:
But think back on mini-you, when you were just minutes old.
What was going through your brain?
In 1977, there was a study by Meltzoff & Moore that examined infants’ ability to learn. They found that 2–3 week old infants could imitate adult actions such as sticking out their tongue, opening their mouths, and imitating sequential finger movements.
While this may seem unimpressive to 2019 you, I’m pretty sure 2-week old you would be thrilled at the babies’ abilities.
Meltzoff & Moore started thinking that it was possible these babies, over their long 2-weeks of life, had seen other adults stick out their tongues and were conditioned to respond back with their tongues out.
So, in 1983, they ran the same experiment on a different age group. This time, no baby was older than 72 hours old, with the youngest being 42 minutes old.
Meltzoff and Moore, once again, showed that the babies could imitate adults (under the right conditions).
- The children had to be full-term babies (not born early)
- Between 5.5–10 pounds
- Fed within the last 3 hours
- Not screaming their heads off for 5 minutes before the test began
If you’re a seasoned parent, you may be saying,
Babies imitate. Duh. Next post, please!
But the implications are more far-reaching than that. Meltzoff and Moore’s studies show that imitation is built into us. It’s hard-wired into our brains. It’s how we learn. Starting as early as 42 minutes outside our mother’s womb, we’re imitating.
The implications? We never stopped imitating.
Science has fairly recently caught up to Meltzoff and Moore’s findings.
In 1990, a group of neurophysiologists hooked up electrodes to the brain of a Macaque monkey to study individual neurons while the monkey picked up objects and food. The researchers were able to locate the specific neurons in the premotor cortex that fired when the monkey picked up food.
What surprised the researchers was during the moments between the tests. In the moments between the experiments, one of the scientists reached for a piece of food. The monkey, still connected to the electrodes, was watching the scientist and the monkey’s neurons started firing.
The scientist decided to check and see which neurons had fired when the monkey watched him pick up food. He was shocked to find out the same region of the brain fired whether it was the monkey or scientist picking up the food.
The group postulated that if monkey brains worked this way, is it possible that human brains work the same way?
Individual human neurons are a little trickier to examine since most humans aren’t thrilled at the idea of putting holes through their skulls and attaching electrodes directly to their neurons.
However, in 1995, the neuroscientists who discovered the neurons in the monkeys were able to show that human brains functioned the same way.
The same regions in our brains fired when someone reached for an object as when we reached for the object ourselves. The neurons that fired when we were simply watching are now known as “Mirror Neurons”.V.S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist who has done extensive work on mirror neurons including studying therapeutic potentials says,
The discovery of mirror neurons…is the single most important unreported story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: They will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.
Ramachandran knew of mirror neurons and saw an opportunity to help patients suffering from phantom limb pain, which is pain people feel in limbs that have been amputated – a tricky problem for doctors to solve.
Ramachandran created a simple, brilliant device known as a Mirror Box to test if mirror neurons could allow a person to visualize their non-existent body part moving without pain, and trick their body into believing that the pain is gone.
He was right.
In this study, 89% of patients experienced a decrease in pain, and therapy with the Mirror Box reduced the number of minutes experiencing pain down from 1,022/day (~17 hours) to 448/day (~7 hours).
That means a person with full knowledge they do not have a left-hand can watch a visual representation of their left-hand moving without pain and trick their mind into believing the pain is gone.
Mirror neurons, however, do so much more for us than just alleviate pain in amputees. They are intimately involved in our development of language, culture, and emotions.
In the mid-2000s, researchers across the globe started (studying the relations of our mirror neurons to emotions. They found that the same region of your brain lights up when you experience an emotion compared with when you see someone experiencing an emotion.
Many scientists believe that this is directly linked to humans’ ability to have empathy.
This led some researchers to wonder if the claims that women are more empathetic than men could be scientifically proven. It wasn’t until 2008 that science tackled this question. Participants’ brains were hooked up to an fMRI machine and were told to focus on their own emotional response to a series of faces expressing different emotions.
The results were similar across the board between males and females. Both groups had mirror neuron regions light up the fMRI when they saw an emotional face and were told to contemplate their own emotions.
The interesting part came during the next round of the study when the participants were told to focus on the emotion of the face they were shown, rather than on their own emotions.
Women’s mirror neuron regions showed increased activation, similar to what they had shown when their focus was on their own emotions.
Their mirror neuron regions didn’t activate.
While the scientific world would call it a stretch to say this definitively proves women are more empathetic than men (we would need more studies), what we do know is that there seems to be a neurological difference in how men and women process the emotions of other people.
Dr. Rizzolatti, one of the initial neuroscientists involved with finding the mirror neurons in the Macaque monkeys is quoted in a NY Times article called Cells That Read Minds,
Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.
So just by seeing someone, we can put ourselves in their shoes and run a brain-simulation of events to figure out how we would feel in their situation. While you may be thinking,
Yeah, I do that shit all the time. It's called being human.
These understandings can actually help our understanding of how both individual humans and communities function.
When sports fans watch their favorite team on TV, their mirror neurons are activated. As they watch the players running, shooting, and scoring, these mirror neurons fire and their body actually feels as if it’s playing the game. This is why so many people become addicted to sports – their brains light up as if they are in the game.
The same goes for watching rom-coms. And porn.
According to Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at UCLA,
Mirror neurons provide a powerful biological foundation for the evolution of culture...we see that mirror neurons absorb culture directly, with each generation teaching the next by social sharing, imitation, and observation.
Insert Rene Girard
Rene Girard is a 20th-century French anthropologist most renowned for his idea of Mimetic Theory. I first heard of him through Peter Thiel who credits Girard as more influential to his life than any other author.
Mimetic Theory proposes that human desire is not an independent process, but a collective one. We want things because other people want them. Girard states,
We are competitive rather than aggressive...We literally do not know what to desire and, in order to find out, we watch the people we admire: we imitate their desire.
Girard believes, regardless of how much we like to believe we are unique, most human behavior is imitative. In my favorite book of his, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, he writes,
In the science of man and culture today there is a unilateral swerve away from anything that could be called mimicry, imitation, or mimesis. And yet there is nothing, or next to nothing, in human behavior that is not learned, and all learning is based on imitation...Neurologists remind us frequently that the human brain is an enormous imitating machine.
Girard proposes two types of mimesis (which is another word for imitation):
1) Acquisitive Mimesis: desiring scarce objects (fame, money, etc)
2) Non-Acquisitive Mimesis: learning skills from each other (non-zero-sum).
He believes that all conflict, which he calls Mimetic Rivalry, stems from humans desiring the same scarce objects (acquisitive mimesis).
As humans imitate each other, we begin to desire the same things. Think of the little toddler-version of you that used to party at the playground. You would run around with your tiny, little homies, but if someone showed up to the park with their shiny, red toy car everyone wanted it.
All mini-humans became fixated on the new toy. Conflict arose, babies started crying, and eventually, a parent walked over and took the toy away.
Or think back to 5th grade when that new, good-looking girl moved to your hometown and joined your class at school.
All of the boys, even the nerds, thought they had a chance. Almost nobody spoke to her, but arguments broke out between friends about who called “dibs” first.
Sidenote: Obviously calling “dibs” is not how it works, but 5th grade boys are dumb.
Maybe think back to a couple of months ago when a new position opened up at your office. Your favorite coworkers were all vying for the same, scarce position. Someone is selected, causing people who had for years gotten drinks after work, to suddenly go cold. Friends start talking behind each others’ backs, and relationships are fragmented.
Girard points out that mimetic rivalry isn’t always about obtaining the thing we desire. Once the conflict starts heating up, people forget whether they’re fighting about the toy car, girl, or promotion. They’re fighting with their competitor. They want to win.
Girard realized that people don’t fight over their differences, they fight over their similarities. We want what other people want. We want to have things that others envy.
He noticed that humans have incredible freedom when it comes to their desires. This complete freedom causes anxiety because we don’t know what to choose as our desires. This causes us to look around and get cues from others about what it is we should want.
Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.
We all congregate around similar desires because we are all so similar, and we’ve taken our cues from like-minded people. The common desires lead to jealousy and rivalry as social tensions build with many people competing for scarce objects.
This isn’t just something that only happens to individuals. Institutions, communities, and countries function in the same way.
Dissipating the Social Tension
If mimetic rivalries weren’t able to be dissipated, we would probably all murder each other until nobody was left.
So how do we dissipate the tensions?
When conflict within a group or society becomes too intense, a scapegoat is chosen to be sacrificed. Sacrifice doesn’t always have to mean burning someone at the stake during a ceremony, it can be as simple as a group of friends turning their back on one member, a group of coworkers demonizing their manager, or a political ideology vilifying members of opposing ideologies.
Oftentimes, large groups of people are pitted against each other where everyone is forced to pick a side.
Think: George Bush’s famous “You’re either with us or with the terrorists” speech.
By finding a 3rd party to cast blame upon, communities can unite together in the punishment and expulsion of their scapegoat. This unification brings peace to the community.
Girard points out that this peace brought to the community is oftentimes rooted in violence towards the scapegoat. Violence towards the one brings peace to the masses. It is by rooting out the “bad” of others, that our own inner “good” can shine through. We scapegoat others to ensure that we, ourselves, are good. This resolves the internal conflict that stirs within us and makes us feel as if we are doing “good” for humanity.
There is one vital aspect the scapegoat mechanism must contain for it to be successful in restoring peace – the community cannot be aware that the chosen scapegoat isn’t truly at fault for the conflict. If the community is aware the scapegoat is essentially a stand-in for conflict resolution, the community will not unify.
The community must be absolutely sure that the chosen scapegoat is the source of their conflict for the tension to dissipate. The effectiveness of the scapegoat mechanism is inversely proportional to people’s inability to understand it.
Okay, so the scapegoat gets wrecked. Then what? We just go about our merry business?
After a scapegoat is taken down, institutions put prohibitions in place to limit the future mimetic conflict, therefore reducing the number of scapegoats necessary for society to peacefully function.
In the 1800s, marijuana was a fairly mainstream medicine in America. It was found that marijuana could reduce headaches, treat stomach problems, and help people sleep. Not a surprise to anyone keeping up with today’s medical findings.
However, in 1910, the Mexican Revolution broke out. There was fairly widespread immigration of Mexicans into Texas. This caused a certain level of unease as you had many new people competing for the same jobs and resources that were once only held by the original Texans.
Mimetic rivalry ensues.
The immigrants did not come empty-handed. They brought marijuana with them, which was their intoxicant-of-choice.
The influx of new, different looking people caused a slight hysteria among the Texans. According to a 1994 article in The Atlantic,
Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.’ Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.
Emily Dufton’s book, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America quotes a US Treasury Department report whose chief concern was,
Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites smoked marijuana for pleasure, and that they could harm or assault upper-class white women while under its influence.
With mimetic rivalry building from the competition of Mexican immigrants, the scapegoat had been chosen. Marijuana was at fault for the issues facing society – and it had to be dealt with.
A smear campaign took hold in the American media culminating in a 1936 movie called Reefer Madness where unsuspecting high school students are lured to try marijuana, which results in a hit and run accident, attempted rape, manslaughter, suicide, and hallucinations – all the result of smoking a marijuana cigarette.
What followed the successful sacrifice of the scapegoat, was a series of prohibitions and taxes marking marijuana as illegal and allowing prosecution of those in possession of it.
29 states made marijuana illegal between 1916 and 1931, followed by the Federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which was effective at curbing possession of the drug for recreational or medicinal uses by imposing strict regulations.
The act was strongly opposed by the American Medical Association because it financially impeded the research into the medicinal benefits of marijuana and the bill made claims that marijuana was addictive, caused violence, and was a common cause of overdose, which the AMA said was untrue.
In 1970, President Nixon took this act one step further making marijuana a Schedule 1 Drug. To quote the DEA’s website,
Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
To this day, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 Drug, along with heroin.
The rivalries between US citizens and immigrants rose as both sought the same resources. Marijuana was not at fault for their conflict but was chosen as the scapegoat. Once it was made illegal to the fullest extent the law allowed, tensions released and society was able to move on.
Girard believed that societies had one more trick up their sleeve when it came to diffusing tensions built up from mimetic rivalries: Ritual.
Religions of the past were the predominant creators of rituals. Girard’s perspective is that only societies that utilized prohibition and rituals were able to effectively resolve mimetic conflicts – so the religious societies survived and the non-religious were destroyed by mimetic conflict.
But what happens when we no longer rely on religion?
A Society Without Religion
Though Girard believes society can thrive without religion, he says the group must have a release valve to diffuse tensions. Without a release, society heads towards an apocalypse of unleashed mimesis.
A build-up of social tension happens. Everyone starts pointing the finger at everyone else. Ideologies strengthen. Cancel culture takes control.
Girard points out that an inability to release the mimetic tension only increases the magnitude of the scapegoat necessary.
At first, a goat must be sacrificed.
Then a few men are necessary to sacrifice.
After a while, as seen with the 20th century Communist and Fascist regimes, it becomes entire cultures, religions, or races that must be extinguished.
The “omnipresent victim” is constantly in search of who is necessary to expunge from society to perfect it.
The insistence on blaming existing social structures, whether it be Muslims, Christians, billionaires, poor people, republicans, democrats, or the government is a form of scapegoating.
Removing any of these through scapegoating sacrifices, will not allow society to flourish in a utopia devoid of violence. The removal of these institutions or groups will only diffuse the conflict for a short time. These ideologies we hold so dear to us only gives us the illusion we are pursuing justice. But underneath our veiled attempts at justice, is a violence that needs a release.
Our culture is one that judges against judging, we are intolerant to anything that is slightly exclusive, we are hostile at anything that gives the semblance of hostility.
Modern society has a yearning for everyone to be the same, but according to Girard,
The dissolution of differences always proceeds the violence.
Girard believes that today’s society has been one of the first to see through the scapegoat mechanism and understand that the victim is not the sole source of conflict. As a result, we tell stories of the persecuted innocent rather than myths of deified scapegoats (such as Abel being slain unjustly by his brother Cain in the Bible).
Science has come to look more and more like a trap that modern humanity has unknowingly held for itself. Not only does it provide weapons powerful enough to annihilate civilization, but it desacralizes and brings down the symbols and mechanisms (myths) which prevent such violence in the first place. The definite renunciation of violence will be our only hope.
Are we screwed?
I don’t know.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to take a more optimistic view of humanity. Girard nails human imitation of desires and mimetic rivalry. Once you hear his ideas, you’ll start to notice them when you read the news, hear your friends talk about coworkers, or analyze almost any problem in society.
When you look at the neuroscience behind how our brains work, you realize that although our brains develop throughout our lives, the underlying mechanism is the same.
We imitate what we see.
Because we’re just giant babies.
Luckily, since we imitate what we see, widespread change can happen fast.
Like Ghandi says,
As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.
Widespread change starts on a personal level. In case you’re new here, I make no claims about having any real knowledge – just doing my best to understand the world. But, to me, it seems like if we’re trying to avoid devastating, global mimetic conflict we must first become aware of ourselves partaking in it.
It starts with awareness.
If you’ve ever heard the adage,
You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.
it rings strikingly true. When I’ve spent time around my more intellectual friends, it has an impact on what I read and think about. When I spend time with my friends obsessed with politics, I find myself paying more attention to the issues of the moment. My behaviors change because I’m imitating those around me.
So maybe, instead of everyone trying to save the world, we should start by trying to work on ourselves. Catch ourselves when mimetic desire takes hold. Stop pointing fingers at others being the root cause of the problems in our society.
The indignation caused by scandal is invariably a feverish desire to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, to allot responsibilities, to unmask the guilty secret without fear or favor and to distribute punishment.
If we can stop painting others as “bad” in an effort to see ourselves as “good”, we may be able to make some progress. Movies and TV constantly paint the picture of good vs evil. The good guys punish the bad guys and society lives happily ever after.
However, most of today’s eradication of evil happens on Twitter. And let’s be real, tweeting about the problems in society doesn’t actually do anything but make us think we’re helping. It makes us feel good without making progress. Rather than tweeting, try not overreacting when someone cuts you off in traffic. If someone does something you disagree with, don’t berate them. Try to understand them. Show them through your own actions (not with your words) how they should behave.
This is how widespread change is made.
Girard takes an optimistic view of humanity as well,
Mimetic desire, even when bad, is intrinsically good, in the sense that far from being merely imitative in a small sense, it’s the opening out of oneself...Extreme openness. It is everything. It can be murderous, it is rivalrous, but it is also the basis of heroism, and devotion to others.
Anytime someone is watching you, remember that their mirror neurons are firing. If they see you get angry, the same regions in their brain fire as if they are angry. The inverse is true as well.
Everyone is an imitating machine, and it’s up to you to decide who and what to imitate.
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