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Mirror Neuons, or Why I’m So Tired

I wrote this piece a while back, while I was working on This Shared Dream.  Being a Professional Writer, I have thought long and hard about trying to market it, but it where to send it?  Discover?  O?  Salon?  I’ve often reslanted material–for instance, I turned a travel piece I wrote about being in Praugue a few weeks after it was opened to western visitors, which the Washington Post, my usual publisher for travel pieces, passed on because every other travel writer in the world was also there at that momentous time–into a story called “Klein Time,” and published it in Century.  But there is something stubborn about it; I can’t think what else to do with it.  So here it is, as is.

Mirror Neurons, or Why I’m Always So Tired



Ann Goonan



As  a science fiction writer, I constantly read cutting-edge books about science that  push back the boundaries of who we think we are.  as MIRRORING PEOPLE, by  Marco Icaboni, is one such book.

Several  years ago I began to see articles about the discovery of mirror neurons in  monkeys in Science News.  Amazingly,  these neurons fire when a monkey just thinks about grabbing a banana, even though she can’t possibly get to it, and fire  when she sees another monkey grab the banana instead.  Okay, maybe these could be more accurately called jealousy neurons, but mirror neurons has a much nicer ring.

The use of fMRI in humans has revealed that  humans have mirror neurons as well.  This  discovery, and its implications, is arguably one of the most interesting in the past decade regarding the brain, consciousness, and our relationship with the  world.

Which  brings me to ceiling fans, piles of clean but unfolded laundry, dust, and  housework in general.

I  have long been in a war with the unfortunate cosmic prevalence of too much  gravity in my home, which causes objects such as books, socks, and countless other objects fall to the floor with depressing predictability.  Someone must pick up all of these things.  I can’t help thinking that that someone will  be me, although I rarely do anything about it.  Such activities are reserved for when I have enough money from my job,  writing, to knock off for a while, which is not very often.  Many writers, when faced with a blinking  cursor and a white screen, obsessively clean their house.

That  is so not me.

However,  the state of the house is always in my face, as they say, and the view clashes  with what the place ought to look like, especially if company should show up  unexpectedly.

Now  that I’ve read MIRRORING NEURONS, I realize that the strenuous mental activity  of mirroring the real work via observation, like the monkey seeing the banana  and thinking about getting it, is wearing me out.

The  worse the house looks, the more I run detailed mirror-neuron subprograms about every  fatiguing movement I would have to make in order to move one tiny step forward  to magazine-photo perfection.  An alternate  and perhaps more accurate way to phrase this might be “the fatiguing movements  I would have to make in order to prevent myself or others from tripping over  something and having to go to the emergency room.”

The  point is that, given the state of my house, I sometimes consider checking into  a hospital for a rest cure.  The  situation is the result of my own decision, mind you.  Before I became a writer, I had a steady  paycheck, and could afford household help.

Now things are different; I am dependent on the vicissitudes of the  public, chain bookstores, my publisher, and that which helps me write—the  ceaseless activity of my mirror neurons, which imagine how my characters will  act.  I can’t do without the mirror neurons;
they’re how I earn a living.  But now, thanks  to science, I know that they also keep me imagining that I’ve done a lot of  housework that I haven’t done.  Mirror  neurons are a vicious, double-edged sword.

Scientific  research has irrevocably shown that intent is a physical act.  Consciousness is physical, predicated on  changes in the brain.  Consciousness  resides in the entire body, because our brain and body are not, as some would  have it, separate entities.  This strikes
me as rather unfortunate and unexpected, because although I observed old people  as I was growing up, I somehow assumed that what had happened to them, as  abstract as it was to me as a kid, had only happened to their physical bodies,  that their mind and their soul, as it were, were unaffected by age.  Sadly, this is not true.  The effects of age on the brain are most  strikingly illustrated by the lives of mathematicians and their more applied cousins,  physicists and chemists.

However,  even for the rest of us, early adulthood provides an obvious peak in mental  abilities.  After that, mathematicians  can hang it up, in terms of pure thought.   Although most of us are not engaged in this particular level of thought,  there must be a similar decline in our own abilities.

I  therefore postulate an erosion between whatever it is that keeps an imaginary  activity from sapping the same amount of energy that the actual work might  require.  Some kind of neurological  barrier dissolves, so that our youthful ability to ignore the squalor and
disorder piling up around us is lost.  Or  maybe it wasn’t a youthful ability; maybe that was just a side effect of living  at home before going off to college.  Whatever  it was, writers of science fiction, philosophers, and scientists have to  consider alternate views.

Whatever  their profession, all humans, for their own psychological health, need to avoid  labels such as “slothfulness” or “sheer laziness,” and learn to substitute  positive thoughts, such as “creative,” “so utterly gifted I can’t be bothered,”  and now, “there go those damned mirror neurons again.”

Don’t  get me wrong.  Mirror neurons are  wondrous.  Our connection to the world  around us probably exists because of them. Mirror neurons give our lives their  meaning.  Mirror neurons endlessly  generate emotional meaning, as when we understand, or think we do, what others  may be feeling, and what we might have done to cause this, or how we might  help, or why we understand Shakespeare, or why we are mad when someone wrong us  or when our dog chews up the furniture.  Mirror neurons are the cause of our highs and lows, our feelings of the  sublime, our despair at the existence of genocide, of most everything we think  of as defining us as humans.

One  famous mirror neuron experiment consists of showing human experimental subjects  a photograph of a cup on a table, and, afterwards, the same scene with food  strewn about, as if someone has drunk a cup of tea and polished off a nice  little nosh.  The mirror neurons light  up, as it were, when the food appears to have been eaten.  The scene is now imbued with a human  presence—a human presence who has eaten something that we might have eaten had  we the foresight to have put ourselves in that situation.  We identify, instantly and  automatically.  We are always  inferring.  We can’t help it.

Sounds  exhausting, right?  Which brings me back  to ceiling fans.

One  of the Secret Keys of Writing, which I will now divulge, despite the fact that  it violates one of the oaths I took when I became a professional writer, is  that an indispensible but little-discussed stage of writing is lying on the  couch musing.

This  vital process is interrupted when I see my ceiling fan, where a  good-quarter-inch of grime adheres to the edge of each blade, held there by invisible  superglue that wafts in the window from Route One.  One solution I hit upon when visitors were arriving
in fifteen minutes is to put it on high, which turns the blades into a single  inscrutable blur,  but that is  counterproductive when I’m working.  Piled-up manuscript pages, unpaid bills, and assorted scraps of paper  fly off the coffee table and slide beneath furniture, creating even more work.

It’s  not just the fan, though.  When I see dirty  dishes in the sink, and even when I see the closed door of the dishwasher,  knowing that inside are dishes to be unloaded—work!  My arms moving, reaching, my body twisting at  the waist.  A sock on the floor?  There go those pesky mirror neurons, firing like  a view of Los Angeles from Mulholland Drive.  Apparently, I might as well actually be doing the work as thinking about  it.  It definitely explains the power of  advertising.

Zen  monks really are onto something.  Their  lives are swept clean, and, therefore, so are their minds.  It has now been scientifically proven.  They can concentrate on the more important  things, like Nothing.  This is much  harder than it sounds, but, in the end, it is worth years of effort, for satori  is reached.  I now imagine that in a  state of enlightenment, one chops wood, carries water, and cleans ceiling fans while  in a new, hard-won brain state that bypasses mirror neurons.  Yet, it was always there; you just didn’t  know it.  Or something like that.  Well, it’s complicated.  It is also very simple.  Or so I’ve heard.

Alternatively,  if you can detach yourself, monk-like, from the mess that surrounds you,  perhaps by knowing, deep-down in your bones, that someone else will do the work  of cleaning it up, life is probably a lot more relaxing.  I think that men, in our particular society,
mastered this esoteric art several centuries ago, and the knowledge is passed  down from father to son—but not, let it be noted, without collusion on the part  of a lot of mothers.   In this present day and age, many males exercise  their mirror neurons by simply sitting on the couch and watching exciting  life-affirming events like car chases, gun battles, and football games without  the muss and fuss of actually stirring their own bones.

I’m  sorry.  I digress.  I mourn my own feminist failings.  I move on.  I notice the dust on the ceiling fan; my  husband does not (let me add that neither does he watch football; I’ve just heard  that a lot of men do) and does not notice, either, when it is clean. This
amazing and wonderful blindness extends to the rest of the house as well.  It doesn’t seem to matter to him.  In his favor, I must say that when there is  work to be done, he responds to strong and precise directions.  I also notice that when I leave for a while  and then return, nothing is more messy than when I left.  He has washed his own dishes, done his own  laundry.  He can, in emergencies, do what
is necessary for survival, to keep from dying from a dire infection, and to  have clean underwear.

I  long to be like him, or at least more the Ideal Woman, who seem to be able to  install a new mirror-neuron program into the men in their lives if the men’s mothers  were not thoughtful enough to do so.  If  I had children, I would be stronger, for their sake, to ensure that their  future relationships do not devolve into a pit of arguing about who left the  dirty glass in the otherwise spotless living room.  (For obvious reasons, this is something that  we have never, ever done.)

But  apparently, because of some uber-program installed by generations of women, I  own the ceiling fan.  I own the dust on  the ceiling fan.  Instead of the  exhaustion of repeatedly cleaning it, via my mirror neurons, every time I  notice it, which is again, and again, and again, I must get out the rags, fill  a bucket with water, and pour powerful chemicals into the water.  Oh, yes, first I must find said chemicals in  my utility room, and expose myself to mirror neuroning the day of work required  to reorganize everything.  Then I have to  find the ladder, unfold it, climb it, and wipe off the grime.  Climb down, throw out the water, fold the  ladder, put it away.

I  know now that I must strike a balance, but, apparently, you can’t make deals  with mirror neurons.  You can’t say,  don’t worry, you pesky little neurons, I’ll do it, umm, next week.  Mirror neurons are always hard at work. Science  really does have the power to refresh my perspective.  It’s not distant and abstract.  Instead, it is full of revelatory tidbits  that I can relate to my own life.

Are  you tired yet?



Kathleen  Ann Goonan is a writer.  THIS SHARED  DREAM, her latest novel, is now out.  It is  about memory, family, time, a CIA agent, and how recent discoveries in neuroscience might change  what it means to be human—really—in the near future.   IN WAR TIMES, her last novel, won the John  W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science fiction novel of the year; Booklist declared it “An instant classic,” and it  was also the ALA’s Best Adult Genre Novel of 2007.  Her blog is www.goonan.com/blog .  Follow her at kathleengoonan@twitter.com

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