Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT-S
How do mirror neurons help with co-regulation? The mind-body connection of our resonance circuitry is central to co-regulation. Understanding the role of mirror neurons in our resonance circuitry provides insight for mental health professionals to help their clients learn to effectively regulate their emotions. This article discusses the role of mirror neurons in our resonance circuitry and how that helps with co-regulation.
As mental health professionals, how many of you have been in sessions with your clients and you can physically and emotionally feel their emotional distress? I can remember sitting with clients in my office pouring out their deepest sorrows to me and finding myself welling up with tears in my eyes as I sat with them. I could feel their emotional pain, and that filled me with empathy and compassion as I understood them on a deeper level. How is that possible? How is it that I can physically feel their emotional pain? Mirror neurons and resonance circuits. Let’s explore that further.
Let’s first examine mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons were discovered in the early 1990s by researchers seeking to better understand the premotor area of a monkey’s cortex, which led to a surprising discovery. When observing the predictable behavior sequence of one of the researchers not only did the researcher’s neural circuitry become activated, the same neural circuitry in the monkey became activate simply by observing the behavior of the researcher.
Researchers discovered that these mirror neurons are found in the inferior frontal and posterior parietal areas of the brain and are activated by both the observation and execution of predictable, sequenced behavior. This activation sends energy and information via a representation of the behavior to the mirror neurons from the superior temporal cortex (Badenoch, 2008). According to Badenoch (2008), this process creates “a bridge between motor action and the perception of intention” (p. 38).
So, now that we understand mirror neurons, let’s examine resonance circuits.
They help us to understand the intentions of others and to navigate a complex social world.
Siegel (2011) coined the term resonance circuits to describe the neural circuitry involved in resonating mind to mind with another to become attuned with their internal emotional and physiological states. Resonance circuits involve mirror neurons as well as other circuitry in the cortical areas of the brain and the body. They help us to understand the intentions of others and to navigate a complex social world.
Most mammals have the capacity to “read” the internal states of another via advanced limbic circuitry. Mirror neurons connect by way of the insula, which acts as a superhighway of neural circuitry, to the limbic area and then to the body in a bi-directional manner. The flow of energy and information moves from the limbic area down the brainstem to the body. Information received through the body is then transported up through the brainstem to the limbic and cortical areas of the brain – top-down and bottom-up. This is how we can physiologically resonate with another person to the extent that even our breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate become synced. This is an important point to remember when we explore co-regulation.
This is how we can physiologically resonate with another person to the extent that even our breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate become synced.
Additionally, mirror neurons are believed to be crucial for the ability to experience empathy. This makes sense when you think about it. If my mind and body can experience what you experience, then I’m more likely to understand you and have empathy.
Siegel and Hartzell (2004) state: “the amygdala is crucial in the perception and outward expression of facial responses and it is central in the regulation of emotional states” (p. 75). It’s where emotions are initially assessed to recognize if a threat exists. Resonance circuits are constantly and without our conscious awareness processing cues received from subtle and obvious facial expressions and body language as well as information from our other senses. Information from external sources in our body received through our sensory circuits can cue us to the internal states and intentions of others.
Have you ever been in a session and could detect an emotion or sense something going on with your client and your client was giving you no indication about what was going on? We can sync emotionally as well as physiologically with another. Sensory inputs also mirror the internal states of others that allow us to emotionally resonate and recognize the emotional energy underneath the behavior and predict the next action in the sequence of events. This can help us become more attuned to another person. As therapists, we strive to resonate mind to mind with our clients to help us understand them at a deeper level so that we can help them better understand themselves and overcome their mental health challenges. It’s also important for mental health professionals to help parents resonate with their children to aid in the attunement process and co-regulation.
Priming is the process that involves what happens when we observe behavioral information sent to the superior temporal cortex to create a representation in our mind to predict what is about to happen based on the sequenced and predictable behavior registered in our mirror neurons. This priming process aids us to become in sync with another because we tune in to another and act based on our prediction of their behavior (Badenoch, 2008; Siegel, 2011). Siegel (2011) states this priming process helps us understand culture and the ways our shared experiences bring us together.
Think about the culture within families and creating internal maps of others within our families and the ways in which relationships operate. Family members influence one another including behavior, mindsets, and beliefs. They become in sync with their behaviors. In family systems theory, this would be called the family process. There is a culture within families based on their shared beliefs, relationship patterns, and behaviors.
Siegel (2011) states: “we are hardwired from birth to detect sequences and make maps in our brains of the internal state – the intentional stance – of other people” (p. 61). Our ability to connect via our mirror neurons in one mind resonating with another mind becomes wired into our neural circuitry. Mammals are uniquely preoccupied to focus on the internal states of others, most especially parents with their children.
How does all of this relate to co-regulation?
Co-regulation requires the ability of children to use the emotion regulation circuits of caregivers when they are experiencing emotional distress. This requires their caregivers to remain within their window of tolerance for emotional distress to effectively regulate their own emotions at that moment. As parents are able to engage their resonance circuits to become attuned with their child and regulate their emotions, the mirror neuron circuitry in the child can begin the wiring process for emotion regulation because their internal states are syncing with their parent’s internal states.
Co-regulation requires the ability of children to use the emotion regulation circuits of caregivers when they are experiencing emotional distress.
Emotional contagion is a term that explains what happens when the emotions of others physiologically resonate within us and impact our own state of mind, which can influence our interpretation of unrelated experiences. Our ability to effectively resonate and understand the internal states of another person requires that we recognize we are separate and distinct from the other and that we are accurately aware of our own internal state. Our ability to recognize our own internal states while also being attuned to another and regulating our emotions facilitates co-regulation.
- Mirror neurons allow us to recognize and understand the predictable, sequenced behavior of another. They are crucial for empathy.
- Resonance circuits include mirror neurons as well as cortical and subcortical regions of the brain and the neural connections through the brainstem to the body. The bi-directional processes from brain to body and body to brain facilitate our ability to physiologically and emotionally resonate with another person.
- Resonance circuits can aid in the co-regulation process as we recognize our own internal states as separate and distinct from our child so that we can internally regulate our emotions and help our child use our regulated state to sync their emotional state.
Are you a mental health professional working with children using play therapy and expressive arts? Check out this free pdf for the Be 5 Framework based on neurobiology and using intention to create a strong therapeutic space for an integrated approach to play therapy and expressive arts.
Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Siegel, D. J., and Hartzell, M. (2004). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York, NY: Tarcher.
Siegel, D. J. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam.