“For it isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Overview: Welcome back to my blog! In this post, I will be defining mirror neurons, discussing the influence of mirror neurons on culture and racism, and introducing empathy as a solution.
Note: Due to protests surrounding racial injustice, police brutality, and the death of George Floyd, I thought it would be best to post something related to the anti-racism movement. This movement needs all of our attention to make necessary changes in legislation and the police force. Through this post, I hope to give some explanation to why this ideology could still be present in the 21st century and to also continue to provide you with information I have learned in my courses.
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Despite the legislative and societal evolution over the centuries, racism still persists and is present in our everyday lives. And although millions of people now embrace equality and protest racism, there are other millions that hold the same racist presumptions and beliefs that existed in the 1600s. So, how has racism persisted?
Well, the answer to that question lies in the brain, in a network of connections known as mirror neurons.
What are mirror neurons?
Before we get into a cultural analysis, let’s start with a definition. According to the Association for Psychological Science, mirror neurons are
“The tiny neurological structures that fire both when we perceive action and take it, exposing the true social nature of the brain.”
Let me put it a little differently. Essentially, mirror neurons are a network of specialized neurons that help the brain mirror whatever it sees. If you’ve ever heard the phrase
“Monkey see, monkey do” when referring to toddler or infant behavior, you may know what I’m talking about.
If not, let me explain!
Babies learn everything through observation. When you talk to a baby, their brain processes the information through the help of mirror neurons. The mirror neurons’ job is to take the baby’s observation and integrate that information into the social and emotional sections of the brain. When the baby is ready to talk, their mirror neurons fire the information back out into the world.
Perhaps a more simple example could be a mother and baby playing. When a mother claps her hands, the baby’s mirror neurons automatically respond, processing the information and then firing it back out when the baby claps its hands. These simple social interactions are made possible by mirror neurons and become active at birth.
Mirror neurons and culture
As racism became integrated into everyday society, it also became integrated into white American culture. Through propaganda, language, and art, racism was almost central to white American culture for a time. But what do mirror neurons have to do with culture?
Mirror neurons are the neurological motor of culture. Nova Science states that culture stems from imitation or watching adults do something. For example, simple hand signals such as a “thumbs up” are a part of culture and are learned through observation and imitation. All aspects of culture are observed at a young age before they are eventually imitated and passed on to the next generation.
So, what do mirror neurons have to do with race and racism?
Mirror Neurons and Racism
Mirror neurons are linked with observation and imitation of physical, emotional, and verbal behaviors. All of these behaviors are aspects of one’s culture. That being said, when a baby or a child is exposed to racist behavior at a young age, their young brain absorbs that information and has a higher probability of imitating that behavior later on.
For example, if a young child observes their parent verbally insulting and berating minorities on the street, that child will absorb that vocabulary and has a good chance of continuing that same berating behavior.
However, this pattern of observation and imitation of racist behaviors can be prevented.
Nova Science issues that the primary purpose of mirror neurons is to tie us to others’ actions and feelings to develop empathy. In fact, Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti proposes that empathy is the default state of our brains, and racial prejudice becomes present later on. So, to prevent future generations from developing racial bias and prejudice, we must educate ourselves on empathy, acceptance, and anti-racism, so we are able to teach our children to do the same.
What did you learn?
How were your ideologies influenced by others?
How will you educate yourself or take action?
Would you like more content on mirror neurons and/or race?
If you would like more information on how to call attention to this issue or to take further action, please visit the Call to Action page on this blog.
If you would like to comment or leave a suggestion, go to the Contact page on this blog or leave me a comment below!
Click on the links below to learn more about mirror neurons and how to be anti-racist.
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Mirror Neurons: How we Reflect on Behavior
Culture Influences Brain Cells: Brain's Mirror Neurons Swayed by Ethnicity and Culture
Racial bias weakens our ability to feel someone else's pain
Do neurons hold the key to understanding racism in society?
How to be an anti-racist
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Meghan Hesterman (she/her) is a child advocate and education blogger. While a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), she created Journal of a Future Teacher to share her journey in becoming an early childhood teacher.