This summer, Joy and I took a course on choral warm-ups. During one section of the class, our instructor asked us to sing something together, directing us from the front. We repeated a given phrase a number of times, with him making small, seemingly imperceptible changes to his posture and body awareness. Our sound as a singing group changed, perceptibly, but how and why? If we just needed to know when to start singing, what difference would it make that he felt more awareness of his shoulder muscles?
In the 1980s and 90s, a team of Italian neurophysiologists, using electrodes placed in the ventral premotor cortex of macaque monkeys, discovered that certain neurons responded both when the monkey reached for food and when they observed their handlers reaching for food. Many subsequent studies of humans, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) have confirmed an involved network of “mirror neurons” firing in our brains both when we do something and when we observe the actions of those around us. These discoveries are the scientific observation of empathy on a physical, electrical level, and, as detailed a picture as we can see in an FMRI scan, the complete workings of the brain remain mysterious. It is likely that our network of mirror neurons is more extensive and that our physical empathetic response more involved with those around us.
Although I had heard a little about these mirror neurons, the demonstration given by the class instructor this summer woke me to the significance and subtlety of this mirroring brain activity, both in musical and non-musical contexts. We are making a difference in the lives of those around us, even when we aren’t aware it’s happening. We cannot move about in the world without affecting and being affected by the people around us. Placed into the context of the sacred space at GPC, as we worship, sing, study and fellowship together, we can experience and celebrate our connectedness, to one another and to the world we serve.