Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: How mirror neurons are reflected in Tris.

As promised, I hope to eventually get up a few posts about the neuroscience of Divergent.  First up…  mirror neurons.

Jeanine has her faults, of course, but she and her colleagues do a pretty good job of explaining what they are in Insurgent.  First discovered in monkeys in the early 1990’s, mirror neurons are in the motor control areas that fired both when the monkey did a specific action (like reaching for a peanut) and when the monkey saw another monkey (or human reasearcher) perform the task.  The first definitive recordings of mirror neurons in humans were made in 2010. In humans, mirror neurons appear to be both more numerous and more widespread, and have been credited with making everything from imitation, to language, to empathy to civilization itself possible in our species. For a brief overview of their potential importance, I suggest this 8-minute TED talk excerpt from neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. Elsewhere, Ramachandran has been quoted as saying that the discovery of mirror neurons will do for psychology what cracking the DNA code has done for biology.  A pretty tall order for a bunch of cells.

Spoilers ahead!

To be fair, not everyone shares Ramachandran’s enthusiasm for the mirror neuron system or is quite ready to credit it for the multiple complexities of our culture. But, I think it is safe to say Roth is an enthusiast. We learn that Tris, the most divergent of the Divergent, with her affinity for (gasp!) three factions, has an unusually high number of these cells, giving her brain a special adaptability the typical faction member lacks. As Jeanine tells us:

Someone with many, strong mirror neurons could have a flexible personality- capable of mimicking others as the situation calls for it rather than remaining constant….  A flexible personality would probably have aptitude for more than one faction.

We have already seen how personality theory shaped the factions. Tris, who we first meet standing in front of a mostly-forbidden Abnegation mirror and feeling guilty about wanting to see her own reflection, is, by the middle of Insurgent, using her own internal mirror system to save her society.

Sometimes I feel like I am collecting the lessons each faction has to teach me, and storing them in my mind like a guidebook for moving through the world. There is always something important to learn, always something that is important to understand.

The Abnegation forbade mirrors believing they promoted self-centeredness, which is rather ironic given mirror neurons’ suspected role in empathy. In Divergent, once Tris escapes her Abnegation home where the one mirror was hidden, other mirrors crop up quite frequently and are associated with Tris coming to understand herself.

Mirrors line the walls of the school testing center, where Tris first learns she is Divergent. After joining Dauntless, she gazes at herself in the mirror during Christina’s makeover session, and realizes she looks “like a different person:” Tris, not Beatrice. She glances in the small mirror in the Dauntless dormitory after losing her first training fight and claims the bruised reflection is not her;  the next time she looks in that mirror she sees new muscles, depicting her strength and how much she is changing.  Shortly thereafter, following the attack where Peter pulls the towel off of her, she again stares at herself in the mirror and vows to beat them in the next fight. Which she does.

After waking up from the first night she spends in Four’s room, she looks into his mirror, suggesting she is starting to acknowledge her inevitable attraction to him. When visiting Caleb at Erudite headquarters, they stand under a flat mirror, where Tris sees,”our tiny figures, the size of fingernails.  That, I think, is our true reflection; it is as small as we actually are.”  She is beginning to realize that corruption is present in all factions, and that she and Caleb are pawns in a much larger game. A mirrored wall turns up again in Tris’s Abnegation bedroom during her fear landscape test, reminding her she is in a simulation; the wall substequently transformed into the closet that holds both her weapon and her escape.  The last mention of mirrors in Divergent is in the pivotal moment when Tris chooses to shoot Will.  Tris describes, “He stops running and mirrors me, his feet planted and his gun up.”  After she shoots him, she feels instant regret and overwhelming empathy, saying “But I feel dead, too.”  Later, in Insurgent, a mirror is crucial to her failure to overcome her phobia of guns, as she practices in a bathroom.

I see a flicker of movement in the mirror, and before I can stop myself, I stare at my reflection. This is how I looked to him, I think. This is how I looked when I shot him.

Remarkably, this empathy even extends to her arch-enemy and proves to be a weapon Tris uses against the “emotionless” and “machine-like” Jeanine. In the Erudite laboratory, Jeanine observes Tris through a one-way mirror, but Tris is the one who manages to “stare down” her enemy by looking at herself, even though she is on the reflective side of the glass.

I look at the mirror. It’s not so difficult to pretend that I’m speaking to Jeanine when I speak to my own reflection. My hair is blond like hers; we are both pale and stern-looking. The thought is so disturbing to me that I lose my train of thought for a few moments… I am pale-skinned, pale-haired and cold. I am curious about the pictures of my brain.  I am like Jeanine. And I can either despise it, attack it, eradicate it…  or I can use it.

If Jeanine (and Ramachandran’s) neuroscience is to be believed, it is not the external mirrors that it so easy for her to take another’s perspective, but her own internal mirror system…  the cells Ramachandran calls the Ghandi-cells. These are also likely the neurons that give Tris the mimicking ability that she uses to such good advantage, from observing and mentally practicing Four’s knife throwing to imitating the Simulation-zombie Dauntless and thereby avoiding detection as a Divergent, to blending in with the various groups of Amity, Erudite and Dauntless traitors. This same mirror-neuron ability to empathically take another’s perspective is what allows her to save Tobias when he is forced into running the simulation at the end of Divergent, and chooses to sacrifice herself. Tobias later asks her why she didn’t shoot him and she answers, “I couldn’t do that. It would have been like shooting myself.” Clearly Tris’s excessive mirror neurons can serve her well when it comes to beating both simulations and Jeanine.

But, can they serve the society as a whole?  Edith Prior’s video reveals to us in the end that highly flexible people like Tris were goal of the founders of futuristic Chicago. The older generation isolated the city in hopes of breeding a generation of Tris’s.  There seem to be plenty of them now, particularly among the recently armed Factionless, but what will they do with their newfound self-awareness? As we await the third book, we realize the true planned mission of the Divergent is not to stop the war between the factions, but to bring peace to the brutal world outside the fence. How much help will mirror neurons be?  We’ll have to wait and see.

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