Travels With Lily Part II, or, The Power of Mirror Neurons

We’re back from another major round of travel for the film. This time we flew rather than drove, and while we certainly got around to more places, I swear that those 10,000 miles in the car for our trip last fall were easier on me than the many airports I’ve checked out in the past two months.

Airplanes and toddlers aren’t typically a great mix—modern air travel is rather dehumanizing for all of us even when we do understand the rules—but we actually ended up finding a routine that worked well. Lily’s appetite for adventure and outgoing personality certainly helped—she quickly charmed those near us, even if they had looked annoyed at having lucked out with a seat next to a lap child.

The winning ticket for us was traveling around naptime, running and playing in the airport before take-off as much as possible (“Lily exercising,” she’d tell me), sitting next to a window, watching Dora on my iPhone (I swore we’d be a no-TV household…now I bless that little bilingual explorer and her pet monkey), nursing to sleep, having fun stickers to play with when even Lily has had enough of Mama’s iPhone, and saving the best beloved freeze-dried strawberries snack from Trader Joe’s for the last 30 minutes of the flight when everyone is antsy. Oh—and not lamenting the “good ‘ol days” when a plane ride meant a chance to read a book, watch a movie, or just zone out.

We had one flight without Lily—a Saturday night red eye to New York and then D.C. I think it demonstrates just how desperate parents can get for a little private time when we sort of thought of that red eye as a date.

While I don’t think personality and temperament can be overlooked, I do think that one of the reasons why Lily has turned out to be such a good traveler involves mirror neurons.

Let me back up.

Last fall, when we were leaving on our three-month production road trip, I was fretting a lot about whether or not the whole thing was just going to be too much for Lily. She was just nine months old, and we were not only proposing a lot of driving but that an entire quarter of her first year of life would be spent on the road. We were in between apartments and living with my parents temporarily (it’s how we could afford the trip), and we didn’t actually have a home except for the 19-foot-fittingly-named-Nomad trailer we were pulling behind us. (Good thing we weren’t in France or Sarkozy might have had us deported as gypsies!)

My mom, sensing my worry, gave me one of the best pieces of parenting advice that I’ve ever received. She said, “Just remember that if you’re okay, she’ll be okay.”

That seems so simple, but I’ve discovered that its simplicity is also part of its profound importance.

What my mom was talking about on a biological level is a rather recent discovery that many scientists consider revolutionary: mirror neurons.

The idea is simply that when we see others do something, our minds react as if we were doing the same action or feeling the same emotion. Here’s how David Dobbs described mirror neurons for Scientific American Mind:

The discovery of this mechanism, made about a decade ago, suggests that everything we watch someone else do, we do as well, on a mental scale. At its most basic, this means we mentally rehearse or imitate every action we observe, whether a somersault or a subtle smile. It explains much about how we learn to smile, walk, talk, or play tennis. At a deeper scale, it suggests a common neurobiologic dynamic for our understanding of others, the complex exchange of ideas we call culture, and psychosocial dysfunctions ranging from lack of empathy to autism. It makes sense of why yawns are contagious — to why, watching Olivier fall to his knees, we feel Hamlet’s grief for Ophelia.

From my perspective as a mother, this is a hugely important parenting tool. And I’ve seen it working. When I get upset, annoyed, or just plain grouchy, I notice little miss mirroring my mood. Similarly, when I take time to really be in a moment and enjoy simple things like eating an especially good cherry tomato or petting Pali with her, I can see the results quickly in bigger smiles, sustained laughs, and just a more settled presence.

We talked about mirror neurons last week in our church as part of a series on fear and the brain, and I shared that one of the reasons why I still enjoy nursing Lily is that our time together (almost always in bed now) is a quiet space, a time when I have to consciously quiet my mind and project what I hope is relaxing, sleep-inducing energy. I sing softly to her, chat about her day, stoke her hair, and sometimes consciously think about calmness and peace as I breathe next to her. It helps me to calm down too—this is probably why I still nap with her more often than I plan to. I’ve gotten so good at convincing her through my words and body language that it’s a good time to go to sleep that I talk myself into it as well!

Now that I have some scientific language to frame the “if-you’re-okay-she’ll-be-okay” phenomenon, I realize that it’s really something most of us know at a basic level. It’s what I knew as a teenager who spent many hours a day riding my horse; if I acted scared of something (say a dog barking ferociously at us), my horse would be much more likely to bolt or misbehave. It’s what I knew as a young high school English teacher who noticed that the good or bad energy of one influential student could instantly change the tone of the classroom. And it’s what my midwife told me when I was struggling in the first early days and weeks of breastfeeding. She kept reassuring me that the most important breastfeeding tip was to “send her love the whole time, even if it hurts.”

All of this has really convinced me that one of the more important things I can do as a mother is take care of myself—it’s back to the idea that there is a good way to be “selfish.” If Lily is reflecting my moods and mirroring how I am in the world, it’s important that I do my own inner work so that I’m being the model I want to be. She’s going to be watching. She can’t help it—it’s what her brain is designed to do.

In other more appropriate words given how many airplanes we’ve been on these past two months, “Make sure you put on your own oxygen mask first.”