In The Mimetic Brain (2016), clinical psychiatrist Jean-Michel Oughourlian discusses recent advances in Mimetic Theory and how he has been able to apply it to treat his patients. Dr. Oughourlian first summarizes the scientific findings supporting Mimetic Theory and the fundamental role of imitation in the development of the self:
"• Imitation is the first link, the point of departure for interhuman relations. It is by imitation that relations to the other and the gradual integration of the newborn into humanity are achieved.
• It is the brain’s mimetic property, represented by mirror neurons, that is at the origin of empathy, thanks to the “mirrored” recognition of the other as “like me,” my alter ego. It is empathy that makes it possible to decode and share emotions and feelings.
• It is by means of an innate mimetic mechanism that the human brain learns, understands, and integrates everything offered by the other, others, and the culture he is immersed in. This confirms Aristotle’s insight that imitation is congenital to man and that human beings acquire their first knowledge through imitation. An idea shared by Spinoza and that finally offers a very important confirmation of René Girard’s theory: learning is the result of mimeticism and of mimetic desire when the model remains a model; the pupil wishes to imitate the words that the model repeats to him or her, and the latter wishes the pupil to learn and to appropriate them. It is the same mechanism that, bearing on an object that the model designates but withholds, will lead to rivalry and conflict.
• Finally, we must emphasize the fact that the observer’s mirror system reflects the intention of the action he is witnessing, even if it is not completed. “Hooked up” to the same wavelength, so to speak, the observer’s brain guesses the other’s intention, that is to say desire, and models him- or herself on it, even if the gesture is unfinished or if the hand reaches for a hidden object (a piece of food placed behind a screen and that the subject thus does not see when the experimenter’s hand plunges behind the screen)."
Expanding on the traditional two mind models of reason and emotion, -- also see "System 1" and "System 2" of the Prospecting Lens and the Elephant-Rider model of Jonathan Haidt -- Dr. Oughourlian creates a mind-model comprising not two but three components: (1) a rational brain of Rene DesCartes (first brain); (2) an emotional or archaic brain of Antonio Damasio that in connected with the limbic system (second brain); and (3) a mimetic brain that is driven by mirror neurons and the innate human tendencies described above (third brain). For each decision, Oughourlian posits that one of the brains is dominant while the others either support or are suppressed. As one of his simpler example of the interaction between the three brains he provides:
"A man walks into a bar and hesitates before ordering. Another man arrives. In a strong voice, he orders a pint. At once, the first man, acted upon by his mirror neurons, addresses the bartender: “Me, too.” The third brain took the other as a model and copied him. The first brain is limited to giving the choice its stamp of approval by placing the order, and the second brain produces feelings of satisfaction at the idea that the decision has been taken and that a good beer is on its way."
Dr. Oughourlian describes the mimetic brain as being driven by the interaction between one individual and another, or "interdividual" action. What happens is that we not only imitate others and the desires of others, but we then misappropriate those desires and forget or delude ourselves into believing that the desire originated within ourselves, and even further often that the "other" person is actually copying us. This can lead to both conflicts and delusions, like one of his patients who for a time believed himself to be Napoleon. As he summarizes:
"[T]his relational function— which is essentially imitative— is the driving force of the emotional and cognitive functions. Before making use of our rational capacities, we absorb much more immediately and mimetically information to which our mirror system gives us access. With the hypothesis of a “shared manifold,” the neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese has emphasized this “shared network” of mirror neurons. He invites us to think about the interrelations and imbrications of the mirror neuron system, the affective system, and the most conscious level of personal experience, that is to say thought and reflection: “Sensations, pains and emotions displayed by others can be empathized, and therefore understood, through a mirror matching mechanism,” he writes in a seminal 2001 paper. He also hypothesizes that higher-order brain functions may depend on these basic mirroring mechanisms: “The discovery of mirror neurons in the monkey premotor cortex has unveiled a neural matching mechanism that, in the light of more recent findings, appears to be present also in a variety of non motor-related human brain structures.” In his conclusion, Gallese states that human thinking and reasoning abilities may even depend upon these prerational, prelinguistic simulations: “My conclusion is that the more we’ll know about how our brain-body system works, the less remote the nature of thought and reasoning will appear from it.”
Dr. Oughourlian then describes the basic unconscious mechanism for how we form our desires and selves from the desires and selves of others:
"Desire d, the imitation of the other’s desire (desire D) is from the first instant and by definition in the process of laying claim to its own priority. Self s, forged by desire d, must, in order to maintain itself, from the moment of its emergence, claim priority for this desire of which it is in reality the product. From this comes the fact that the geneses of d and of s fatally involve an uncompromising claim and thus a dose of rivalry. Thus, desire and rivalry are but one. There is no desire without rivalry. There is no rivalry without desire.
In the student or the apprentice, desire is not very rivalrous. The misrecognition of otherness— which is initially necessary, let us recall, to keeping the self in existence— is peaceful and is manifested as an overlooking or bypassing of the problem. The teacher teaches and the pupil learns. Everything goes smoothly until the day when the student feels that he has surpassed the master. Then rivalry can emerge at N with neurotic frenzy and at N' with delusional frenzy.
To sum up, human beings are the plaything of mimetic mechanisms, of rivalries that emerge out of imitations. All of this occurs at the level of the interdividual rapport [a/k/a the “third brain.”] These destructive, demanding, rival mechanisms express the refusal to recognize otherness, clothe themselves in sentiments, in fury or coldness and various emotions taken from the emotional or second brain’s wardrobe. And they don political, religious, philosophical, ethical, and other justifications and rationalizations taken from the wardrobe constituted by the [first] brain."
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Looking through the Prospecting Lens and the Mimetic Lens together with the help of the good doctor, it is clear that many of Kahneman's System 1 heuristics are in fact unconscious manifestations of mimetic desire that would be recognized by Dr. Oughourlian. Thus, we can map many of the System 1 heuristics on to the mimetic third brain. The heuristics that seem to map the best to the mimetic brain model include:
PRIMING. Conscious and subconscious exposure to an idea “primes” us to think about an associated idea. If we’ve been talking about food we’ll fill in the blank SO_P with a U but if we’ve been talking about cleanliness we’ll fill in the blank SO_P with an A. Things outside of our conscious awareness can influence how we think. These subtle influences also affect behavior, “the ideomotor effect." This is true: if we behave in certain ways our thoughts and emotions will eventually catch up. We can not only feel our way into behavior, we can behave our way into feelings. In other words, we are not objective rational thinkers. Things influence our judgment, attitude, and behavior that we are not even aware of.
Mimetic Theory applies the idea of priming in its broadest sense to the behavior of others and the desires of others. As the recent research has shown and Oughourlian summarizes, this kind of priming is hard wired into human beings and manifests itself very early on in infants. There is a popular truism these days that "You are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time." This would seem to be a direct consequence of priming and the mimetic brain.
THE ANCHORING EFFECT. This is the subconscious phenomenon of making incorrect estimates due to previously heard quantities. If I say the number 10 and ask you to estimate Gandhi’s age at death you’ll give a lower number than if I’d said to you the number 65. People adjust the sound of their stereo volume according to previous “anchors,” the parents’ anchor is low decibels, the teenager’s anchor is high decibels. People feel 35 mph is fast if they’ve been driving 10 mph but slow if they just got off the freeway doing 65 mph. Buying a house for $200k seems high if the asking price was raised from $180k but low if the asking price was lowered from $220k. A 15 minute wait to be served dinner in a restaurant seems long if the sign in the window says, “Dinner served in 10 minutes or less” but fast if the sign says, “There is a 30 minute wait before dinner will be served.” Potential for error? We are more suggestible than we realize.
The Anchoring Effect does not map directly to the mimetic brain itself but clearly involves the same subconscious mechanism. It is related to mirrored intentions. As Oughourlian relates, through observation of another person, an observer’s brain automatically guesses the other’s intention, that is to say desire, and models him- or herself on it, even if the gesture is unfinished or if the hand reaches for a hidden object. This is also a manifestation of the "Theory of Mind" discussed in this post:
"[T]he Theory of Mind mechanism, which allows us to step into the minds of others and imagine ourselves as them abstractly, has also been confirmed as an innate feature of the human mind:
“It turns out that we are wired from birth for social interactions. A great many of our social abilities come hardwired from the baby factory. The advantage of hardwired abilities, of course, is they work immediately and don’t have to be learned, as opposed to all of the survival skills that do.""
THE AVAILABILITY HEURISTIC. When asked to estimate numbers like the frequency of divorces in Hollywood, the number of dangerous plants, or the number of deaths by plane crash, the ease with which we retrieve an answer influences the size of our answer. We’re prone to give bigger answers to questions that are easier to retrieve. And answers are easier to retrieve when we have had an emotional personal experience. One who got mugged over-estimates the frequency of muggings, one exposed to news about school shootings over-estimates the number of gun crimes, and the one who does chores at home over estimates the percentage of the housework they do. When both parties assume they do 70% of the house work somebody is wrong because there’s no such thing as 140%! A person who has experienced a tragedy will over estimate the potential for risk, danger, and a hostile universe. A person untroubled by suffering will under-estimate pending danger. When a friend gets cancer we get a check up. When nobody we know gets cancer we ignore the risk. Potential for error: under or over estimating the frequency of an event based on ease of retrieval rather than statistical calculation.
A common variation of the Availability Heuristic exemplifies of the interaction between Oughourlian's three brains. Oftentimes we are influenced not by events that actually happened to us, but to someone close to us or even something we have just seen repeatedly on the news. Our third brains allow us to mimetically put ourselves in the place of the victim, thereby eliciting an emotional response from the second brain. This in turn drives decision-making as to whether to go to certain places, take certain kinds of transportation or to vote for certain candidates, for example, that may or may not be rational. The post on terrorism provides an example of this. Our first brain then finds reasons to support the decision, which is also the common interplay between System 1 and System 2 that Kahneman described: System 2 will make up stories to either confirm or deny the conclusions already made by System 1.
Our love for sports as entertainment also follows this pattern. We use our third brain to put ourselves in the position of our favorite team or player and our second brains feel the thrill of victory when he or she wins. The first brain then finds rational reasons for spending a lot of time and money attending these events "in person" when we might easily derive similar results from watching the event on television.
THE NARRATIVE FALLACY, THE HINDSIGHT ILLUSION and MISWANTING. In our continuous attempt to make sense of the world we often create flawed explanatory stories of the past that shape our views of the world and expectations of the future. Which leads to…
THE HINDSIGHT ILLUSION. We think we understand the past, which implies the future should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do. Our intuitions and premonitions feel more true after the fact. Once an event takes place we forget what we believed prior to that event, before we changed our minds. “The tendency to revise the history of one’s beliefs in light of what actually happened produces a robust cognitive illusion."
MISWANTING. We exaggerate the effect of a significant purchase or changed circumstances on our future well-being. Things that are initially exciting eventually lose their appeal.
Mapping these three System 1 heuristics to Oughourlian's three-brain model goes to the heart of much of Oughourlian's analysis of how we use memory to deceive ourselves into believing that we originated a desire that we actually copied from another person. Then we are disappointed when we actually acquire the object of desire, because we never really wanted it anyway. And we wonder why we do not feel fulfilled by getting "what we want" and feel dissatisfied with our lives, while continuing to repeat the pattern of miswanting.
Specifically, Oughourlian notes that memory often acts not as "a machine for storing memories and thus a recollection apparatus." Rather, [m]emory  has an essential function, which is the forgetting of the genesis of desire and of the self, enabling the latter to remain in existence with all its attributes."
Dr. Oughourlian further relates miswanting to misrecognition of the mimetic sources of our desires:
"All of this leads to the conclusion that in psychology, physical time has no meaning and the future corresponds to nothing at all. Only the past related by memory is considered as real. And this past, this psychological time, is in reality the inverse of physical time, which means also the contrary of the reality of things. We will see that all the work of psychological initiation and of the quest for wisdom consists among the great initiates in realizing that what their memory reports is exactly the reverse of what actually happened.
The realization of this fact is what I call the recognition of the otherness of my desire, which leads to peace and wisdom. Conversely, the misrecognition of this otherness— which is expressed by the frenetic claim  of the ownership of “my” desire and  its [false] anteriority with respect to the other’s desire— leads to all psychopathological syndromes, for both neurotics and psychotics generate diverse and multiple strategies to make good on this double claim: the desire I feel belongs to me and it has priority over the other’s desire that appears to be copying it."
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Dr. Oughourlian's three mind model is a fascinating and powerful tool for focusing the MImetic Lens and for self-reflection that both complements and expands upon the traditional two mind model.
Which reminds us why these are indeed the Lenses of Wisdom in more than one way. Giving the good doctor the last word:
"As I have often emphasized, I think that the opposite of madness is not mental health. The opposite of madness is wisdom. And wisdom is the long transformative— that is to say initiatory— process by which each of us can gradually recognize the mimetic mechanisms of which one is the plaything, overcome the mimetic rivalries of which one is the prisoner, and avoid even the most scandalizing and staggering mimetic obstacles, so as to move toward a situation of calm, harmony, and peace inside oneself and between oneself and others.
I think that attaining wisdom, the type of wisdom that I am talking about, is the objective of Socrates, Buddha, Christ, Krishnamurti, the Dalai Lama, and all the great sages. What I am seeking to contribute is a scientific framework that makes it possible to orient oneself along this initiatory path and that offers the therapist constant feedback about what he is doing, and enables him or her to follow along with the gradual harmonization of the three brain functions all the way until— if possible— their final harmony.
Certain techniques or teachings call especially upon the first brain, like those of Socrates or Krishnamurti. Others are based primarily on a mastery or pacification of the second brain, like those of Christ (“ Love one another”), Milton Erickson, J. H. Schulz (founder of “autogenic training,” a relaxation technique), Gurdjieff, and Buddha. I have the feeling that awareness of mimetic mechanisms and of the primordial and automatic action of the mimetic brain as well as its workings is cruelly lacking in the methodology that has to be put in place in order to arrive at wisdom. For the great sages, whose teaching bears essentially on the first or second brain, consider (without saying so) that the third, which they do not mention, could be influenced by the other two sufficiently to attain wisdom.
It is clear that few people have been able to take full advantage of the teachings of these great sages, and I think that their number can be significantly increased thanks to scientific awareness of the existence and workings of the third brain as well as of its dialectical and constant interaction with the other two. Simply stating the goal to be achieved and the innumerable failures of all the teachings offered by the great sages shows us how difficult the undertaking is. This echoes Christ’s words: “Many are called but few are chosen.” This also echoes the fact that the dead ends each of us can wander into are innumerable, while there is but one path that leads to wisdom. It is thus with the greatest modesty— the greatest patience, the greatest benevolence, the greatest indulgence— that the therapist, now conscious of the global reality of the psychic apparatus, must go in search of each patient on the dead-end path where he or she has lost the way, to attempt to guide the patient by means of every initiatory process at his disposal, addressing now the first, now the second, and now the third brain according to which target seems best to him."
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.