by Melissa Nedza, Board Certified Dance/Movement Therapist, Kripalu Yoga Teacher
I am sure you moms have had this experience: witnessing that first moment of seeing your baby dance. I am the mother of a thirteen-month-old and last week for the first time as the music was playing he began to dance while kneeling on the floor. He had a huge grin on his face, arms outstretched while bopping to the beat. And I almost automatically began to bop up and down just like him, smiling with my arms outstretched, cheering him on. It was a wonderful feeling! In that moment I could feel his exhilaration run through my body, and well after it was over. This, my fellow moms, is an example of the concept of mirroring which has to do with a very amazing type of brain cell called mirror neurons.
I want to say up front that I am not a neuroscientist, but I am a Dance/Movement Therapist and I love all things that have to do with the intersection between psychology and movement as a form of healing. I am going to geek out a little as we proceed, but I promise to keep it as simple as possible. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the 1990’s by a team of Italian researchers working with macaque monkeys. They found that individual neurons in the brain of these monkeys fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another monkey grab the same object. In essence, watching an action take place and performing that same action activated the same parts of the brain in monkeys down to a single neuron. Since this study, human beings have been found to have a more general ‘mirror system’, as researchers are trying to figure out where else beyond the motor cortex mirror neurons may reside (https://www.apa.org/monitor/oct05/mirror).
I don’t know about you, but I find this absolutely fascinating and a true sign of just how connected we humans actually are! For example, you are watching a baseball game and as the pitcher throws the ball, it hits the person up at bat in the leg and you recoil in pain as if you can feel the pain yourself. Or you are watching a marathon and you feel your heart pounding and the feeling of excitement as the runners approach the finish line. It is as if you are physically feeling what the people you are watching are going through.
I have thought a lot about my ability to connect with others socially and emotionally since becoming a mom. I remember bringing home our son from the hospital and starting that miraculous process of connecting with him and forming a bond through eye contact and touch. Without thinking about it, we have all mirrored our babies. When they laugh and squeal, we give them a similar joyful reaction and when they frown and cry, we frown as well and say words of comfort and understanding. These are examples of mirroring which is the process of imitating the movement and/or sound that our baby makes, and through this process baby gets to see his or her actions repeated back to them and feels understood, seen, and loved. Mirroring creates attunement, or the ability to read another’s emotional needs. This process is essential for baby’s healthy growth and development on all levels.
Especially as a first time mom, knowing that mirror neurons exist gives me proof that humans indeed do have more in common than not. This helps me to have hope in the human race and the world my son will be growing up into. The latest research has found that mirror neurons are important for understanding how we perceive not only the touch, emotions, and pain of others, but also their intentions. This is truly wild and miraculous! (https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/mirror-neurons-how-we-reflect-on-behavior) So the next time you are dancing with your baby and mirroring their movements, think about mirror neurons and the impact your movements can have in their life.
If you are interested in experiencing the power of mirror neurons with other moms, please join us on Saturday, May 18th for the Moving Mamas Workshop. Click here for details and registration. Hope to see you there.