What forms the basis of our ability to do this? Our brains themselves are structured to promote collaboration and care.
In the past few years studies have shown that special cells in our brains called "mirror neurons" are central to our ability to know and understand one another.
According to Wikipedia, "A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another." Mirror neurons are more highly developed in humans than in any other animal. Simply put, our brains activate when we witness other people's actions in the same way they do when we perform those same actions ourselves. The actions we mirror include the way emotions are displayed, cuing people to the emotional content of statements. We literally feel what others do and feel.
When I give care to you and you receive care from me, our mirror neurons actively respond to one another. What I do impacts you and what you do impacts me. Two direct results of these impacts on caregiving are as follows:
Imagine being injured or ill. Imagine the way we might feel based on the response of a person who comes in the room to take care of us. If I am injured or ill and a person interacts with me when he is full of his own fear or despair or distress, I experience fear or despair or distress myself. I literally mirror it. A friend of mine told me about friends visiting her after her brain injury. Although she was feeling hopeful when they came, by the time they left she had picked up their despair and distress at her injury. She felt what they felt and found herself exhausting her limited energy as she tried to comfort her friends rather than being comforted by them.
This does not mean that the people who come to see us should attempt to lie about what they feel. Given the power of mirror neurons, most of us are pretty adept at picking up cues that tell us what another person is feeling in addition to what the person is saying. If the cues about feelings don't match the words we hear, our discomfort increases. We may imagine that whatever has happened to us is so awful that the person who has come to visit us can't even talk about it to us.
It helps if the caregiver or visitor takes the time to understand his or her own feelings, acknowledges those feelings, and allows those feelings to settle before working with someone who is injured or ill. When our friends and families see past their own individual feelings, they can practice being with us without judging us. If they focus on cultivating, experiencing and displaying their trust in us, we are directly and positively impacted. When our loved ones feel their trust in us, that trust is communicated and our mirror neurons then help us experience more trust in ourselves. As a result we are better able to handle working with our injuries.
The second way mirror neurons affect caregiving is in the caregiver's role as coach. We are trying to heal and, in the case of an injury, to reestablish movements and find new ways to construct our lives. If our caregivers take the time to carefully demonstrate how to do things - simple things like moving an arm or opening a hand - there is a good chance that our mirror neurons are firing and we are beginning to practice the movement mentally even if we cannot yet imitate the movement physically. Ann needed to learn to use the fingers of her left hand again. Watching her friend John spread open his fingers helped Ann experience of the sensation of finger opening and begin to practice it mentally. As she followed that sensation, ever so gradually she began to spread open her own hand.
The mirroring can involve any of the senses. Mirror neurons fire when we listen to the sound made by other people doing things. When I was trying to learn to walk smoothly again after my brain injury, one thing that helped improve my gait was walking with someone outside. When I could hear the pattern of someone else's footfalls, my brain registered the sound. My mirror neurons fired and this created a sensation of the experience of a regular walking pattern, instructing my body to imitate the pattern and create the same sound.
Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." While he was not talking about mirror neurons, the statement is a wonderful description of the power of the way we interact with and help one another. Let's practice mirroring one another in ways that will help all of us heal.