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How Horror Sparks Our Brains

'Mirror neurons' drive the biology of empathy.

By Danielle Egan 2 Mar 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Danielle Egan is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Sympathetic synapses studied

Mirror neurons are what make us parrot the gestures and emotions of those around us. If the person we are looking at is smiling, we instinctively feel the urge to smile; if she looks sad, we feel sad. They're what make us flinch when we watch a horror movie, feel nauseous when we see blood or experience a creepy-crawly feeling after seeing an image of a spider creeping up an arm.

These so-called empathy mirror neurons fire off signals to the deeper emotional parts of the brain and literally mimic the pain and suffering of the person, causing a chain reaction of physiological and psychological responses.

It's no wonder response to the Pickton trial coverage has been so emotionally charged. When we see the faces of Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Marnie Frey, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Ann Wolfe and Georgina Faith Papin, and hear the horrific graphic details of their alleged fates at Pickton's pig farm, we might feel sick to the stomach, anxious, disgusted, angry, desperate and depressed.

Sex workers on the Downtown Eastside, victims' family members and even citizens with no connection to the alleged victims have experienced nightmares after exposure to media coverage, and are purposefully blocking it out.

Wincing at reports

Some media conglomerates are offering psychological counselling to staff exhibiting post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression as their editorial directors attempt to balance their ethical duty to cover the trial accurately without alienating their more sensitive viewers. Reporters, advocates, former sex trade workers turned bloggers and some citizens meanwhile strongly contend that it's our duty to continue following the trial in order to affect positive social change.

"Certainly mirror neurons may play an important part in shaping our emotions and responses to the coverage. The question becomes how," says Dr. Todd Handy, head of the NeuroImaging Lab at UBC. He says the mirror neuron system is a recent discovery that has taken hold in the last five years due to advances in brain imaging. And he says some experts say it explains how we empathize with each other, and ultimately bond as members of a society.

"In essence, the idea is that we 'mirror' our understanding of others through the same brain mechanisms we use to experience our own perceptions, thoughts and emotions. This is why when you see someone get hurt, you tend to wince, when you look at pictures of victims of violence, you can feel their pain." He says there's immense individual variability in the way different people respond to or "mirror" the same events. For some it won't have a big impact, while for others, "it may leave them feeling distraught, as if they're literally carrying the anguish and suffering of the victims themselves."

It's why some people purposefully tune out radio or TV coverage, or throw down their newspapers, and head to feedback or discussion forums to vent emotions like anger, fear or disgust. Mirror neuron activity is thought to be linked to those emotions and trigger the brain's insula, which regulates disgust, fear, guilt, lust and rejection as well as autonomic responses like breathing and heart rate.

'I was reeling'

UBC's School of Journalism has set up an ethics site about the Pickton trial, and a pretrial poll found that while a slim majority of B.C. citizens called the media coverage "just right," one-fifth said they'd heard "too much already" and 24 per cent were "not interested at all" in the trial.

On a CBC Pickton trial feedback site, viewers wrote that the coverage "smacks of ghoulish voyeurism," that "less is better" and "you went completely beyond appropriate reporting." Another viewer said, "Although the details are gruesome and have affected me considerably, they need to be heard. This horrible atrocity may lead to better protection of sex trade workers. If enough people feel strongly about an issue, then change often results."

This desire to effect change is what has energized some reporters to continue to cover the trial after years of investigative work and pretrial hearings. "In the early [pretrial] days, I was reeling out of the courtroom," says Stevie Cameron, an award-winning freelance journalist who has been covering the Pickton case for over five years, commuting between her Toronto home and rental apartments in Vancouver. "You have a gut response to this horrifying information. At first I had terrible nightmares, but I funnelled all of that into working like a dog from dawn to dusk. Now I guess I've built up scar tissue."

'Super mirror neurons'

Neuroscientist Dr. Marco Iacoboni studies mirror neuron activities in the brain and has found that we do indeed build up a sort of cognitive resistance to our empathetic neurophysiological responses whether reporters covering the case, forensic scientists or citizens who choose to tune the coverage out. "The prefrontal cortex controls these 'monkey see, monkey do' cells and we've coined these 'super mirror neurons' because they do inhibit mirror neuron activity," says the UCLA-based neurologist, known as Mr. Mirror Neuron due to his focused studies on the neural mechanisms of empathy and imitation.

Could there be an additional cognitive gap due to the fact that many of the alleged victims were aboriginal? "There is also evidence that the closer the person resembles you, the more mirroring there is," says Iacoboni. "A girl will typically mirror more pictures of other girls of their race. So, the less a person is exposed to a diverse society, the lesser the impact these mirror neurons will have on the psyche."

These so-called empathy neurons, which start developing in infancy when children mimic facial expressions, also help explain why violent video games cause aggression in children and why some people become addicted to porn. So, some experts say it is wise to be cautious about the kinds of information we absorb, since the more graphic the stimulus, the more mirror neurons fire, which also leaves a residual mark in our memories. "Those brain regions can be reactivated with re-exposure or even when you remember something that might even seem unrelated," says Dr. Iacoboni.

An essential sensitivity

Yet, lack of mirroring has also been implicated in autism and psychopathic behaviour, so these neural activities are key to social interaction and shaping a sense of our place in the world. By tuning out altogether, we could actually short-change our understanding of ourselves. "Mirror neurons are very important ways to help you understand yourself and feel self-recognition," according to Dr. Iacoboni. "Our concepts of 'self' and 'other' develop at the same time, and you can't define self without defining other. Understanding the emotions of others can emerge only through a really authentic commitment to other people."

Some of the best coverage of the Pickton case does just that, by continually bringing the topic back to the victims and the need for overarching social change. "My anxieties now are more about the failures of the government, the city and the police to the DTES," says Stevie Cameron. "Nothing's changed there. The same thing could easily happen again. These women are sitting ducks and that sends me into a fit." She says some other reporters have "burned out," but she maintains energy for the case by focusing on the missing women and their families.

"I think we also keep it together because we've formed a community around this case. We're like family, from the reporters to the coffee ladies to the sheriffs. It's a terrible story, but it needs to be covered."

Roots of post-traumatic stress

Vancouver freelancer Deborah Jones agrees and hasn't shied away from chronicling some of the most disturbing details of the case for Time and Agence France-Presse. She thinks it's immoral to tune out the trial because it offends sensibilities. "I haven't done the heavy lifting like some daily media reporters, so maybe if I had been more heavily exposed since the beginning, I'd feel more traumatized. But to me, this is about doing your job, which means having the backbone to deal with the information. Perhaps I haven't experienced psychological problems because I send it back out through the media instead of running to the psychiatrist's couch."

Psychologist and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) specialist Dr. Greg Passey has treated doctors, soldiers and photo-journalists exposed to trauma, and says that even casual exposure to the trial coverage can set off PTSD. "Family members of the victims and some police investigators exposed to the more gruesome stuff are highly vulnerable. But people who make great friends, who are very empathetic and have an increased ability to visualize are particularly vulnerable to experiencing this kind of anxiety and depression."

And if a person has experienced trauma in the past, exposure to this unrelated information might set those earlier events off again, a sort of straw that broke the camel's back. He says to be aware of a variety of markers -- for example, "intrusive criteria" like memories intruding on daily life; nightmares and flashbacks; "avoidant criteria" like decreased interest in normal activities, "disconnect from people around you and difficulty planning for the future"; and various "hyperarousal symptoms" like insomnia, aggressive behaviour and feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and fear.

But he says only about 15 per cent of soldiers in combat develop PTSD. And a majority of people will take the trial coverage in stride and tune out the most disturbing news. But he says most will do this by distancing themselves from the victims, seeing them as different, saying things like "'I would have made different choices.' They blame the victim to make themselves feel okay."

Way of coping

Jones has an altogether different take on this topic that informs her continued trial reporting and perhaps even helps her cope with the horrifying psychological terrain of this case. "I think people tune out because they feel it's hopeless and they're powerless to change things, so they turn a blind eye to the Hiroshima of the DTES," she says. "So many of the people living in the DTES already seem lost to us, too far gone."

Instead, she says we need to acknowledge that we're all to blame somehow and continue asking ourselves the hard questions.

"The answer is to do something in your own community to stop one person from ending up in the DTES. We need more attachment to our communities. It might be helping out a single mom you know with babysitting, caring about your neighbours, helping prevent one person from falling through the cracks."

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