What do mirror neurons have to do with eating? Quite a bit, says Megan Ross, PhD candidate, LPC, R-DMT, GL-CMA of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center in “Mirror Neurons in Eating Disorder Treatment.”
Located in the brain, “mirror neurons respond to the movement of another living being.” In this process, the neurons in one animal (human or otherwise) may get triggered just by watching the actions of another animal.” During 1990s testing on monkeys, scientists found that a monkey watching a buddy eat a banana activated neurons in its brain as if it, too, were eating a banana. Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships explains why this is. His explanation is that brains have come to synchronize themselves to other brains to form cohesive bonds in society for survival.
How this may affect us as eaters is enlightening. Generally people with eating disorders have all-or-nothing, this-way or that-way rigid thinking. When they’re around people who are like them in the way they speak or act—or eat—their brains both mirror what others are doing and are mirrored by others. How do you think that affects their behavior around food and in thinking about weight issues? You’re correct if you believe that it reinforces it. You think and act like me and I think and act like you. Well, that process doesn’t get any one in recovery very far if you’re both troubled eaters.
When we’re around people, our behavior impacts them and vice versa. Neuron mirroring is why, says science, we may become more like our friends, relatives, or co-workers, and they may become more like us. That’s why it’s crucial to surround yourself with healthy people, especially healthy eaters. You may feel uncomfortable and insecure around them, but you’ll benefit in the long run by hanging around folks who are insightful, reflective, into health, and interested in emotional growth. By being around healthier people, because of mirror neurons, you have a shot at being healthier too.
Which people in your life are so much like you in unhealthy eating habits that you’re almost assured to never change for the better? Why do you hang out with them? Perhaps because they won’t reject you or you don’t feel inferior around them. But what are they doing that’s positive for you? Who are healthful eating models, not just in the way they eat, but in the way they think and act around food? Spend more time with them and less time with others who have poor eating habits, and you’ll notice your attitudes and behaviors slowly transforming. Give mirror neurons a chance to improve your eating and they will.