It happened again a few months ago. I was outside a friend’s reading, waiting for an opportune moment to enter a room without distracting the audience, when I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who had also shown up late. He wore a tweed cap and had a muscular Irish accent. “Who is it you’re here to see?” he asked.
“A friend of mine, she’s the third reader.”
“Oh,” he said, looking at me. “Do I detect an Irish accent on ya?”
My face warmed. This was not the first time I’d unintentionally copied a stranger’s accent. “No,” I said, winding up to explain that ever since I was little, I’ve had an aptitude for mimicking. When my family used to go down to Australia for Christmas to visit my granny, I was able to pick up the local accent to the point where I was able to fool the town’s kids. My aptitude for mimicry worked the other way, as well: I once stayed silent for hours after I watched a movie about a mute girl, only stopping when my mother gently told me that I did not have the same affliction as the protagonist in the film.
But what started as an innocuous talent started to become something a little less innocent. If I spent too much time around a group of people, I adopted their mannerisms, often subconsciously.
People surprised me when they revealed how close they felt to me; I liked them too, but it was as if I had found a cheat, a way of using my mimicry to quicken the natural pace of intimacy. I did this by subsuming whatever emotion this new friend gave me, cannibalizing their glee or disdain or fear into my own nervous system and then radiating it back out. What I was doing no longer felt like imitation; it was more like becoming. And almost everyone, it seemed, enjoyed looking at their own reflection.
But I said none of this to the gentleman who had briefly unfortunately assumed that I, too, was Irish. The story would be longer than the one being read inside.
Animals have been imitating each other long before we humans began to do so. Take the common milk snake, whose glossy red body is bound by black and white stripes. It’s a nonvenomous species, and has little defense when it comes to predators, except for the fact that it has nearly identical markings as copperheads and coral snakes, which are venomous. The similarity is no accident; the bands of color on the milk snake’s scaled body are the product of an evolutionary process meant to make it appear dangerous in order to ward off predators. Not only that, when a predator approaches, the milk snake will shake its tail like a rattlesnake.
Not all prey use mimicry for protection from predators; some predators mimic prey in order to lure them in. The zone-tailed hawk, for example has evolved to display the characteristic plumage and wobbly flight of the harmless turkey vulture.
Like the milk snake, there are sociological elements — or survival elements, as my therapist might say — to my knack for imitation. Growing up with an alcoholic mother, I felt it necessary to try and throw myself into her mind in order to predict and hopefully de-escalate a tense situation. I tried to figure out what role I needed to play at any given time. This skill, of intuiting when someone’s action requires a certain reaction, also proved vital as a woman more generally. It’s the reason women smile and nod when we’re faced with a man espousing hateful rhetoric in a near-empty parking lot. Our lives sometimes depend on guessing what roles are required of us, and I was talented at performing them. So talented, in fact, that it sometimes became difficult for me to discern who I was underneath.
There is a physiological basis for all of this in what we call mirror neurons, which help us understand both what’s happening and the intention behind it. They are a collection of neurons in the brain that light up both when a person performs a task, and when they observe another performing that same task. As such, they’ve been linked with what humans consider to be the pillars of our species: language, learning, and even empathy. It’s believed that they are part of why we recoil when we see a person touch their hand to a too-hot stove: We are not only imagining the other person’s pain, but also, to a lesser degree, experiencing it ourselves.
To this I’ll add my own, unscientific example. I am what I call a sympathetic puker: as soon as I hear or see a person in my vicinity throwing up, I begin to dry-heave. In some ways, this seems like the perfect metaphor for empathy; I am able to understand my friend’s discomfort because I too am experiencing it. But the way it manifests in real life is this: a friend starts puking — say after one too many tequila shots — and instead of being able to rub their back, I am suddenly next to them, focused on my secondary discomfort. In a way, mirroring feels like emotional hijacking, a transference of pain that doesn’t do anything to alleviate it.
Unsurprisingly, it’s well-documented that psychopaths lack mirror-neuron stimulation. In a 2013 study of 18 people diagnosed with psychopathy, the subjects were made to watch short clips of hands as they performed “emotions,” such as pain when the hand was slapped with a ruler. In control groups with non-psychopathic subjects, watching this clip stimulated the same mirror-neurons responsible for their own pain. For the psychopathic subjects: nothing.
But, when the psychopaths were given specific instructions to empathize with the hand-actors in the clip: Christmas lights. Unlike most, their empathy had a switch. Which is why, when they want or need to be, psychopaths can be alluring, kind, and manipulative. They are mimics of the zone-tailed hawk variety.
I care a lot about what other people think. Imagining how a person might perceive me has helped curb some of my less-than-honorable qualities (like my messiness, or my selfishness, or my tendency to leave lights on in a room after I leave it). In his book Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, philosopher Simon Blackburn argues that self-consciousness is paramount to being a responsible person in the world. “Might not the unself-conscious person monopolize the conversation... or unblushingly pocket a dropped purse?” he wrote, adding, “Hume said that the minds of men are mirrors to one another, and this mirroring is the constant check we have on our own behavior. Internalizing the actual or potential gaze of others in an essential sign of decency.” But what happens when you internalize the actual or potential gaze of others too much?
In 1951, Swarthmore College psychologist Solomon Asch conducted an experiment to test the power of conformity. The experiment was simple. There were seven participants. Six of them were actors, and the one who was not was the only real subject. On the table were two cards. One featured an image of three lines of various lengths, labeled A, B, and C, while the other card was of a single line. Participants were asked to match the line on the latter card to one of the three on the former. The catch: the actors lied. So if the line on the second card corresponded to line A, they would say, firmly and unanimously, that they thought it matched line B. It was the subject, the only non-actor, whose response they were looking for.
The findings surprised even Asch: three-quarters of the subjects followed the crowd and agreed. They saw something with their own eyes, and, after hearing people around them confidently declare that they saw something else with their eyes, decided to discard their own evidence.
When asked later why they chose the incorrect answer, members of the 75 percent said that they assumed the other participants knew more than them. I’m familiar with this feeling, of merging yourself so fully to another person that you begin to justify their choices and question your own. I once dated a guy who said that he would beat up anyone at the bar who tried to talk to me, because women needed to be protected. At first, I was appalled. But later, as I tried to understand his perspective, I started losing my own. He was probably right, right? Only after our breakup did I realize how absurd that was. I resurfaced horrified by how quickly I’d thrown aside my own voice, my own beliefs. Because that’s the problem with being a good imitator: the danger of choosing the wrong model.
Since I was a kid, I’ve found solace in being alone. Part of that was my introversion, and part of it was my inability to extricate myself from the interior worlds of others. In 2016, when I was 25, I experienced what I now call “The Crash.” I had just completed the second year of my masters program when I woke up one day with a sore throat and an absolute, overwhelming sense of exhaustion. I wrote it off as fatigue from the academic year, and gave myself permission to rest. But a month later, I was still barely able to pull myself out of bed to get groceries and go to work. I went to several doctors, who gave me varied diagnoses: stress, a possible flare-up of my Epstein-Barr virus, low iron, hyperparathyroidism, poor diet. When the tests they suggested came back negative, I upped my meditation, cut down my drinking, ate fewer carbs and more kale, but little seemed to change.
It was a naturopath, to whom I went out of desperation, who hit the nail on the head. He asked me to question some of my “algorithms,” which he characterized as the things I did perhaps out of survival when I was young but which no longer served me now. What, he asked, was the main source of my stress?
I told him about how tiring it was to be around other people, constantly, automatically, and, for the most part, subconsciously, trying to monitor what they were feeling. After 25 years of hyper-vigilance, I was exhausted.
As a way of conserving my energy, and at the recommendation of my therapist, I developed a way of consciously turning off the faucet that poured me into other people. Every time I felt myself about to “mind-read,” I reeled myself back in, reminding myself that I only had to attend to other people’s emotions and thoughts if they asked me to. My therapist jokingly called it an “empathy switch.”
It’s not perfect, given the fact that I still unconsciously mimic other people’s accents, and still try to predict where a conversation might be headed, but using this switch has increased my capacity to be around other people. It’s also helped me grasp a stronger sense of identity. For the first few months after I came to these realizations, I felt like a newborn, picking through the things that I once claimed to enjoy and questioning them. In other words, how much of me was me, and how much was other people?
Of course, no social animal can be so easily cleaved; the people we interact with shape us all, to some extent. But the word “switch” disturbed me: that same “empathy switch” is what differentiates psychopaths from most neurologically “normal” people. If before the choicelessness of my “empathy” felt like theft, the choice felt like willful ignorance.
I see myself as permeable, my borders transient. I am able to put myself inside the skin of someone else, because my own skin doesn’t hold me in very well. But of course, I can’t ever really know what another person is truly feeling. Though a part of me lights up in recognition of someone’s response to their own emotions, all I am really doing is trying to match that person’s emotion with an approximation of my own. Because I am my own person. Over the last few years, I have begun to define myself on my own terms, and not in relation to others. I’ve learned I am more of an introvert than an extrovert, and that. I’m someone who needs to swim in any clear body of water I see. I’ve learned that I’m comfortable reading Vivian Gornick and then binge-watching Bachelor in Paradise. I’m curious, prefer tea to coffee, and am in no way a morning person. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that I can be stubborn. Still, I worry that if I become more of my own person and less of a composite of those around me, will that necessarily mean I will also become less of a “good person?”
At my friend’s reading, I was moved to tears. I turned to my left to see tears streaking the face of another observer, also a friend of mine. Her tears hadn’t started mine, or mine hers. We were crying alone, together, each stirred by the particular and mysterious feelings the reading had invoked in us. And then, catching each other’s eyes, we began to laugh.