Broken Mirrors: The Psycho-Biology of Police Violence
Updated: Jun 22
Theories of trauma and interpersonal biology teach us that when we are in a state of defense, we very often misinterpret the sublet cues and behaviors of other bodies.
Mirror neuron theory: a specific set of neurons exist in the brain that fire when witnessing another body perform a certain action.
These neurons are thought to replicate the same sensory experience within the body of the viewer that is taking place within the body that is being witnessed. It is believed that this is the basis of empathy.
Reading these subtle cues correctly does far more than help us understand or empathize with others, it determines which kinds of reactions are triggered in our brains and motor reflexes. In the case of cops, these momentary, split-second decisions can be a matter of life and death.
Mirror neuron theory is often cited as a path toward mutual understanding, which it certainly can be. But there's a dark side as well. What happens when mirror neurons fail? There is even a great deal of debate among neuroscientists about whether mirror neurons exist at all, given the complicated questions they raise.
In her short but far-reaching book The Brain's Body: Neuroscience and Corporal Politics, Victoria Pitts-Taylor makes this clear. Critics of the theory claim that the popular understanding of these neurons is too reductionist, too pop-psychology.
According to Pitts-Taylor, there are a couple ways that theorists have tried to understand mirror neurons. One way is through “simulation theory,” which proposes that mirror neurons are a biologically mandated mechanism as contagious as laughing or yawning that immediately puts one’s motor and sensory system in “the other person’s shoes.” When I see you tear up, I may automatically feel a sense of grief or sadness. I may also tear up.
My position within the debate is that mirror neurons, or something like them, do exist and function as facilitator of human connectedness and empathy. Yet it is clearly true that we often get it wrong. The sadness and care that I may feel when I see someone tear up is a kind of intersubjective empathy. It’s immediacy and involuntary nature has connected our systems together. My heart might sink or expand before I register what's even happening. It's an involuntary biological mechanism. Yet it is also partly a projection. What if the person I am "empathizing with" is tearing up because they're happy?
My response is not just about them, I am also unconsciously pulling from my own reservoir of tendencies and experiences, as my physiology attempts to understand theirs, through my own lens. If I often quickly move toward care, that's more likely how I will be affected by the tears of another. If I am more likely to be dismissive or move away from emotionality, that's likely how my body will respond.
Pitts-Taylor warns that within mirror neuron theory lies an underlying assumption that humans generally understand each other and that understanding generally leads to empathy. There is very little at all in the literature about misunderstanding or empathetic failure, themes of everyday social interaction that are far too common to ignore.
*Content Warning: racist police violence
To highlight the potential hazards of an assumed universal intersubjectivity, Taylor-Pitts uses the tragic example of the killing of Amadou Diallo by the NYC police. Diallo was shot 41 times by 4 white police officers as he was entering his apartment building. After the police confronted him, Diallo reached into his pocket to pull out his ID. The officers claim that they thought he was surely reaching for a gun, so they fired multiple rounds. Despite the fact that Diallo was unarmed and entirely cooperative, the officers who killed him were acquitted in a jury trial.
They may certainly have just wanted to murder him, but if we give them the benefit of the doubt, then it follows that the officers misread the actions of Diallo. They assumed that Diallo’s hand was reaching for a gun, but what else did they assume in order to assume this? They perhaps read Diallo’s skin color as a threat, as the type of body that would pull a gun. Perhaps they made assumptions about the neighborhood.
Their bodies and motor reflexes interpreted Diallo’s actions as threatening, based on a whole conglomeration of racist assumptions and predetermined ideologies, playing out at the level of the unconscious body.
Diallo, an immigrant from West Africa also made gestural assumptions. He thought that when confronted by American police, it is smart to quickly show proof of ID and citizenship, which is what he was attempting to do.
The officers made split-second calculations about Diallo’s gestures and motor actions, based not on empathy, but on prejudice. One of the problems with mirror neuron theory that Pitts-Taylor cites is that it assumes that we see others through the lens with how we might act if we were in their shoes. This is not intersubjectivity, but a kind of universalism that assumes that all subjective experiences are basically similar.
The NYC cops claim to have shot him because they were convinced he was reaching for a gun and not a wallet. A decision such as this is not necessarily cognitive or thought out; it's embodied. It is enacted through motor reactiveness, muscle memories blurred by a body’s habitual position on blackness.
Was this simply a mistake, as the cops claim? Is this just an issue of broken mirror neurons, a lack of understanding? Or is it much deeper, an unchecked, deeply embodied racism?
The Polyvagal Theory might actually offer some insight. In a defensive state, or a fear state, we do not have access to our resonance circuitry, which allows us to attune to other bodies. In this state, bodies aren't able to feel much other than fear, or (literally) see much other than perceived threat, and then (re)act accordingly.
When we contract against feeling, we have far less access to the feeling states of others. Sometimes these contractions can become a sort of full body shape that eventually defines our very character. Police bodies, and many other bodies within this culture of fear and securitization, are expected to contract against feeling. We are taught that it is unsafe to be open to "the other." We are taught that this is where the danger is, in the other. So we build gates, walls, put up cameras and close our windows. We contract our worldview, we contract our muscles.
Contracting against feeling is physical, muscular, not just a sentiment, but a physiological phenomenon. It's a cold shoulder, a closed heart, a clenched stomach, a puffed chest, eyes fixed ahead, unable to see the big picture, a fist that just can't let go. Cops are often highly armored, even beneath their gear.
This "armoring," combined with decades of social conditioning, immersion in racist culture, and an environment that induces fear and amps up threat, is a toxic and deadly mix of forces playing out at an embodied level.
It's not about bad apples. There were 85,000 cases of police misconduct and excessive use of force last year. If there are 85,000 bad apples, it's time to give uo on that orchard and plant something else. Police sensitivity training would barely even scratch the surface of the kind of change that's needed.. Shifting years of conditioning and internalized racism, as white people. is a difficult, uncomfortable, and life-long process.
Another way that bodies lose access to resonance circuitry, according to a fascinating 2017 article from The Atlantic is simply through being in a position of power. The article uses the term "power" quite specifically to suggest a kind of domination or indubitable success. Think Trump. Think qualified immunity. The article describes a series of mirror neuron studies that suggest that the mirror neurons of the “powerful” are not broken; but “more like anesthetized"
The powerful stop mimicking others. Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from. Powerful people ‘stop simulating the experience of others,’ Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an ‘empathy deficit.’
Power causes people to stop being moved, touched, changed by the experiences of others, less able to see what's going on.
The author goes on to say that since the powerful are “less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype.” This gets us closer to addressing the question that Victoria-Pitts raises. When we don’t have access to resonance circuity, we have to rely much more heavily on assumption.
There are so many reasons that we might stop ourselves from feeling, and all of these reasons are valid and useful and necessary at times- and blocking feeling has a cost. It requires us to assume, to rely on stereotype, to act according to past fears and to not be preset to what's happening.
When we don’t have access to our resonance circuitry, we are less able to distinguish from perceived threat and actual threat.
The lesson here applies to more than cops. It is also a call to white bodies to check our own reactiveness, to become as acutely aware as we can of how fear, stereotype, and suppressed emotional layers are triggered around black bodies. What happens in our own gut when we consider our own implication in this racist system? Can we learn to stop, and really feel, before we (re)act?