So … if there are theatrical structures in each of our heads, based on animal drives and cultural experiences, what happens between our brains?
(CLICK ON DIAGRAM TO SEE IT BETTER)
At a subconscious, animal level, mirror neurons in my brain (between frontal and parietal areas) fire as I watch someone else make a movement and also when I make the same movement, especially if the gesture is related to food. (Mirror neurons were first discovered in monkeys a few decades ago.)
Our internal brain theatre mimics what others do–sending signals for us to do it, too, but usually with countermanding signals that prevent our muscles from moving in the same way. Some people, however, exhibit a “chameleon effect,” automatically mimicking others. Even if we’re “normal” and don’t do that, we like another person more when that person acts like us, in posture, gestures, and facial expressions.
We also have canonical mirror neurons that fire with a typical object or environment for certain actions, triggering brain signals for those movements. We have audio mirror neurons that are sound activated for mimicry in our internal theatre. And emotional mirror neurons, which contribute to the flow of feelings between brain theatres, as an “emotional contagion.”
As with a flock of birds in the sky, or herd of mammals on the ground, gestures and feelings circulate between us, shifting our collective behavior (and our cultural unconscious). There is a “shared manifold” (Gallese) or shared, cross-personal theatre in which we perform every day, consciously and unconsciously. This external theatre automatically involves the internal theatres of our brains.
At the same time, I distinguish myself by interpreting others as having different perspectives, experiences, and memories from mine. I imagine the theatre inside the other’s brain, with a Theory of Mind (ToM) for the other.
Through mirror neurons and emotional contagion I empathize, even more unconsciously than consciously, with the other’s actions and feelings. But I see the other as a different body, with a different identity and life story. I project onto the other what I know of myself and extend that into a different mindset–filtering the Other’s influences, while also anchoring my Self in the Other.
NOTE: I use the term “Other” here, with a big O, because the Self forms in childhood (and later on) by mimicking bigger people, especially Mother and Father, also siblings, friends, and enemies, and then authority figures, from teachers and media stars to God or other supernatural figures. (Yes, we mimic our enemies, even as we project evil intentions and acts onto them, to distinguish ourselves as good, both individually and collectively.) The term “the Other” also relates to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, which explores how an illusory ego, or sense of Self, emerges through “desires of the Other,” from a mirror stage in infancy to later stages in one’s life–involving Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real dimensions. (CLICK ON BOX BELOW)
To summarize the interaction between brain theaters (described above), involving many backstage areas and the staging of consciousness, as Self and Other awareness:
via emotional contagion, mirror neuron mimicry, and reflective ToM, I imagine a different character of Self in the Other’s brain, while performing some of it in my own, as signals to mimic it and feelings absorbed from it, yet distancing it to be distinct from my Self. I only know (or guess at) the Other’s mind through my Self, but I only know my Self through the Other’s reactions to my performances. This is also known as “mimetic rivalry.” On average, women are better than men at reading facial expressions, perhaps due to their evolved role as mothers (as primal mirror to the infant). But we all perform, interpret, and react to each other’s faces, gestures, spatial distances, tones of voice, and further, mostly unconscious signals–along with the conscious dialog.
FOR OTHER ANGLES ON THIS MIND-BLOWING INTERPERSONAL THEATRE, I recommend these radio interviews, especially the extended ones with Christof Koch (a self-described “romantic reductionist” neuroscientist) and Susan Blackmore (a mindful, consciousness-dissolving psychologist):