The Mirror Neuron Trick

As usual on Mondays, I was looking after Mayuki today while Yuriko went to her kimono class. We went for a walk in the morning to look at the Hydrangea Temple (very pretty), and then played a bit and looked at books. Around 3:30, Mayuki got sleepy, so I got her off to sleep and put her in her bouncer. From that point, I wanted her to sleep for as long as possible, so that I could read. Er, and because it’s good for her.

To do this, I used the mirror neuron trick. Every time she started to wake up, opening her eyes and starting to complain, I looked towards her, and closed my eyes and dropped my head, as if I were falling asleep. Occasionally I needed to do this a couple of times, but it kept her asleep for two hours.

Human brains contain mirror neurons, which are active in babies from a very early age. They dispose you towards imitating actions you see, priming the muscles to act in the same way. (Recent research suggests it may be a bit more complex than that, but in most cases that’s what they seem to do.) Thus, when Mayuki sees me close my eyes and my head droop, her brain is primed to close her own eyes and relax her own neck.

A second well-established neurological effect is that if you do the actions associated with an emotion, it biases you towards that emotion. Smiling makes you more likely to be happy, for example. Thus, closing your eyes and nodding off makes you sleepy.

Now, these are only biases, not compulsions; the trick doesn’t work when Mayuki isn’t really tired anymore, or if she’s woken up all the way. However, if I’m sitting with line of sight to her, and paying attention, I can catch her early enough, and push her brain into the “go back to sleep” state, rather than the “wake up and pester Daddy” state.

Does it actually work? Well, I kept her asleep for two hours today, and I’ve done it before, the same way. If she’s out of my line of sight so I can’t do it, she rarely sleeps that long during the day these days. The experimental data suggest that it should work. However, real situations are complex. Maybe it’s something else. Waking up and seeing Daddy ought to make her feel secure, and thus more likely to sleep. Logically, however, seeing Daddy apparently fall asleep should make her nervous; no-one’s keeping watch.

So, does ruthlessly manipulating her neurophysiology make me a bad parent?






2 responses to “The Mirror Neuron Trick”

  1. Dad avatar

    I wish I had thought of that when you were a baby! Still who would have thought that anyone would have invoked Hebbian engrams to keep a child asleep? [Please don’t send a reply saying that Hebbian engrams has not been proven to explain mirror neurons, or everyone else will fall asleep].
    It doesn’t make you a bad parent it just makes you a less tired one.

  2. David Boyle avatar
    David Boyle

    Now he tells me.
    Does this work when they are 3½ and use the phrase “I’m tired” as a defence mechanism when they are about to be told off?

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