Mental Mirroring and Mothers

January 23, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 3 Comments
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Discussion between mother and child, photographed 31 May 2005 by Marty from Manitou Springs, USA.

Discussion between mother and child, photographed 31 May 2005 by Marty from Manitou Springs, USA.

Several posts on this blog have pointed out how our ability to mentally mirror the feelings and thoughts of others might have developed, and might then have blossomed to give us our values, heightened sense of fairness and kindness, and our sophisticated intelligence, including our science, our fondness for narrative, and a proclivity for religion – that is, most of the the features that we regard as making us human.

Those posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  One post also constitutes an example of a human who is mentally mirroring a squirrel!

Those posts pointed out that other types of animals also mirror to some extent the minds of other members of their own species, and also members of other species.  For example, dogs that are able to sense the moods and plans of humans have, on average, thrived better than those who didn’t, and were therefore more likely to have puppies that would themselves grow up to have puppies.

Golden retriever puppies at 4 weeks, photographed 10 January 2011 by Koosg.

Golden retriever puppies at 4 weeks, photographed 10 January 2011 by Koosg.

Humans anthopomorphize inanimate natural phenomena, by applying to them the mental mechanisms that originally developed for mentally mirroring humans and other animals: the mirroring of inanimate natural phenomena produced science as well as  superstition.  But dogs, too, mentally mirror an inanimate phenomenon as if it were animate, as when a dog cringes and wimpers at the sound of thunder.

A mongrel puppy not more than one month old, photographed 6 February 2012 by Kcdtsg .

A mongrel puppy not more than one month old, photographed 6 February 2012 by Kcdtsg .

A new study has now given us more specific information about the initial development of mental mirroring.  The study was published in a free online journal, eLife (see here and here), and its results are described by Meeri Kim in an article in the Washington Post.

The study’s main result is that rats – and therefore presumably also some other kinds of mammals – empathize with and therefore help only rats that look like the types of rats that they previously lived with.

The aspect that is of greatest relevance here was pointed out by Peggy Mason, one of the authors, in a comment to Meeri Kim: “Helping and empathy are evolutionary advantages,” Mason said. “If Mom doesn’t know how her pups feel, the pups die — and that’s not going to work evolutionarily.”  (In that statement, the pups were rat pups, but the statement is true in general.)  Kim goes on to observe that “In social animals, including humans, empathy starts with the mother-child bond but develops to include a peer network.”.

This would apply to all species of mammals, some species of birds, and apparently, in the past, even to some species of dinosaurs.

Although the article in the Washington Post doesn’t say so, the same should be true for fathers, in those species where the fathers stay around to help feed, protect and possibly eventually teach the young.

Empathy requires mental mirroring.  It is quite likely that active parenting was responsible for a huge increase in our ancestor’s skills in mental mirroring, thereby opening the way for the advanced capabilities that were listed at the beginning of this post.

It would be very informative to see the results of experimental studies of the comparative mirroring skills of mothers and fathers in species where one or both raise the young.  A plausible hypothesis is that, on average, mothers are more skilled at mental mirroring than are fathers, and that, on average, mirroring skills are better in species that raise their young through several stages of development than in species that merely feed and protect the very young, and, finally, that on average, empathy and sympathy are stronger in the species and in the sexes that are more proficient at mental mirroring.

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