Monday, March 24, 2008

Waves of Mu

Last night, I went to see a performance (Waves of Mu) by artist Amy Caron, centered around the discovery of mirror neurons. I had never heard of mirror neurons before seeing the show.

A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia, "is a premotor neuron which fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially conspecific) animal. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself acting." In humans, mirror neurons are thought to be the source of empathy.

The performance was centered around the implications of mirror neurons for human beings. Are mirror neurons responsible for the emotional reactions we have to other people's actions? Are we really just a system of "monkey-see, monkey-do" impulses?

One-by-one, the performer led the audience through varying emotional states. First, she had us watch a video of a baby laughing (and then crying). The audience giggled, "awwwwed" and smiled at the child. She then put on a video of a man talking about the discovery of mirror neurons. Oddly enough, the audience became very quiet and bored (science and its loyal fans) Videos were shown of football games, beer was passed around, people were cheering and jumping up and down. Up until the football part, I was feeling really self-conscious about how I reacted. I knew that the point was to have the audience experience their own mirror-neuron actions, but part of me felt like I was being manipulated and I felt very defiant. Eventually, I was able to let go of that and allow myself to experience the performance and I enjoyed it much more then.

Anyway, the most amazing parts of the performance were when the performer did an "empathy test" where she symbolically put on a random person's shoes and "experienced" a person's autism. Many people in the audience were laughing, but I worked closely with an autistic girl in high school and the performance was reminded me so much of her that I could find nothing funny about it. Instead, I could feel the onslaught of emotions; extreme frustration, sensory overload, extreme frustration... Apparently, researchers believe that mirror neurons are involved with autism; that autistic people do not have the neuron firing that would allow them to connect with the way other people communicate and act.

My other favorite part was and "observation experiment" in which the performer blew up a balloon in eight different ways and had her assistants write down what they saw. The male assistant's account was very physically detailed while the female assistant's account included comparisons of actions to emotions.

I'd highly recommend seeing the show. I hear it's going to tour the U.S. I must say that it was a bit upsetting, but in a good way. And at the same time, it was also very calming.

(Seed covers mirror neurons here)

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