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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Monkey See, Monkey Do


neuronsBy Rosanne Bane

Like so many scientific breakthroughs, mirror neurons were discovered by accident. Daniel Goleman describes the fortuitous accident in Social Intelligence:

Neuroscientists stumbled on this neural WiFi by accident in 1992. They were mapping the sensiomotor area of monkey’s brains by using electrodes so laser-thin they could be transplanted in single brain cells, and seeing which cell lit up during a specific movement… But the truly unexpected discovery came one hot afternoon when a research assistant came back from a break eating an ice-cream cone. The scientists were astonished to see a sensorimotor cell activate as one monkey watched the assistant lift the cone to his lips. They were dumbfounded to find that a distinct set of neurons seemed to activate when the monkey merely observed another monkey – or one of the experimenters – making a given movement (2006, p. 41).

janegoodallThese “monkey see, monkey do neurons” allow us to learn by observing. Mentally rehearsing what you’re going to do – practicing what you’re going to say in a presentation or in my case, imagining how I’ll run an agility course – is to some parts of the brain the same as doing it. But remember the “monkey do” part of the expression. Practicing is vital. You can’t just watch someone else working out and lose weight, for example; you have to use the mirror neurons to motivate you to take action.

A “monkey do, monkey see” flipside may also be true. When you’ve practiced what you’re seeing, you get more benefit from observing others. When researchers compared the mirror neurons of ordinary people with those of professionally trained dancers while both groups observed a dance performance, the professionally trained dancers had significantly more mirror neurons firing. And more mirror neurons fired when the dancers watched dance moves they had practiced than when they watched moves they hadn’t learned.

writers mirrorThe implications specific to writers haven’t been researched, but mirror neurons have been discovered near the language centers of the brain and mirror neurons may prove to be essential in our ability to acquire language. So I think we can safely assume that mirror neurons are at least part of what’s going on when writers get a boost from writing in a group.

Students in my Enter the Flow and Writer’s Workout classes (where we do a lot of in-class writing) frequently tell me it’s easier for them to write in class and that they get more out of the in-class writing sessions than they do when they’re writing alone. Just being with other writers writing is going to get your writing neurons firing.

Choose your mirrors wisely

Choose your mirrors wisely

Because mirror neurons are the foundation of empathy – we feel what we observe others feeling – being with other writers who are excited about their writing is going to make you feel more excited about your writing. Being with writers who are discouraged and giving in to their resistance is going to make you feel discouraged and make you more likely to give up. Be choosy about who you spend time with – be choosy about whose neurons you want to mirror.

My students also suggest there may be a cumulative effect. While the writing they do in class is often easier and more productive than their solo writing, those solo sessions are easier and more productive than the solo sessions were before the students took the class. Moreover, the solo writing they do after the class ends continues to be easier and more productive than it was before they took the class.

I also suspect mirror neurons may be involved in the benefits writers get from reading and studying good writing. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” Reading excellent literature can be a mental rehearsal that activates your mirror neurons and prepares you for your own writing sessions. But again you want to be choosy: reading junk probably makes you more likely to write junk.

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