Mirror, Mirror

So, I’ve been reading about mirror neurons. I know, I know, exciting stuff. For me, it is because it’s part of the medical (and EMT and legal and law enforcement and accident and laws of Physics) research I’ve been doing for my novel in progress. The novel chart’s the female protagonist’s year of emotional and physical recovery following a debilitating accident, of which she is the sole survivor. In order to understand the tenor and depth and detail of her survival, I’ve been doing this research, thinking about how fast the makeup of our lives can change and how long it might take for our minds and bodies to catch up.

Publisher: Random House

In reading The Body Has a Mind of Its Own by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee, I’m learning how it is that our brain and body function and interact day to day. Take learning a foreign language and those mirror neurons I mentioned earlier:

“Mirror neurons make these complex cells look like nincompoops. They seem uncannily smart in the way they link perception, action, and intention. Say you are trying to learn French. You can hear the sounds but you don’t know how to repeat them accurately. Somehow you have to form your mouth into the right shape and right nasal resonance to produce those new sounds. You need to bring two complex properties together: sensory detection and motor planning. This is exactly what mirror neurons do. When you learn French or any new language, they map sounds and, using the same circuitry, produce those sounds” (168).

Ah, so that’s how we do it. Honestly, this makes me doubt my mirror neurons a little bit. Sure, I’ve learned nouns and verbs and I can speak in the present (and occasionally the future) tense about a handful of scenarios that usually involve the grocery store, the post office, my line of work, where I live, or what my family is like. But thus far, my “motor planning” definitely has not caught up with my “sensory detection.” I.e., I understand more of what’s input than what I can, in turn, output.

This is a normal part of language acquisition.

Still, it’s easy to be hard on myself. I’ve clocked seven or so months in country, I’m taking a Spanish lesson once a week, mimicking what Paolo and Cha Cha have to say to one another in some amazing video footage from the early ’90s, and opportunities to practice abound just beyond the door. But… I teach English, my home life is conducted in English, and I’m writing this novel in English. I like that I can deflect a bit to my mirror neurons, even just for today. Oh, it’s just my brain! Sure, I dole out flashcards and do my Spanish homework, and feel that exhaustion that comes at the end of a 90-minute session of bringing those “two complex properties together: sensory detection and motor planning.”

That exhaustion certainly helps me empathize with the plight of my students, when they’re simply lost amongst the new words, or not exactly lost, but so mentally drained that being asked to make one more connection seems downright impossible. (In my case, it’s usually when I simply have no idea what Paolo just said to Cha Cha, no matter how many times I listen.) When I’m teaching, that’s usually the point where we take a break, talk about the weekend or favorite places to travel or pets or anything that doesn’t require reaching for new vocabulary or grammatical structures. We can give our mirror neurons a little rest, then resume. This kind of thing happens naturally in a language class when you decide to travel down an unexpected detour in the lesson plan. But now I understand the corresponding brain chemistry behind it a bit better.

I suppose the point of all this is to say I’m learning Spanish, writing a book in English, and teaching English. Sometimes these pursuits seem to have little if anything to do with one another. But on other days, they seem perfectly linked–all loops in a chain that connects the body to the mind, humanity to humanity, and language to language, interior and exterior communication if you will. Today, they all seem to say something about how we survive in and adapt to new landscapes, how we learn from each other, and how it can all come down to the mirror neurons. Or, make that las neuronas espejo.

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