Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

INT. HANNIBAL’S OFFICE – NIGHT. Hannibal and Jack enjoy brandy by the fire. Subject of discussion? Will, of course. When asked about whether or not he considers Will mentally ill, Hannibal replies:

The problem is Will has is too many mirror neurons. Our heads are filled with them when we are children—supposed to help us socialize and then melt away. But Will held onto his, which makes knowing who he is a challenge. When you take him to a crime scene, Jack, the very air has screams smeared on it. In those places, he doesn’t just reflect; he absorbs. 

There is so much to unpack in this bit of dialogue—don’t get me started on the use of “melt away,” given the abundance of water imagery this season—but my first takeaway is: What the hell are mirror neurons? Let’s find out together, shall we? 

In their article “Mirror neurons: Enigma and the metaphysical modular brain,” Sourya Acharya an Samarth Shukla define mirror neurons as a variety of visuospatial neurons that discharge both when we observe a particular human action and when we recreate the same or a similar action ourselves. “Apart from imitation,” they argue, mirror neurons “are responsible for myriad other sophisticated human behavior and thought processes.” To put it simply, mirror neurons help people learn how to socialize with and understand each other. Babies deduce how and under what conditions to smile by mimicking their parents’ facial expressions. Anyone with a heart watches the opening sequence of Up and breaks into tears. “Although the enigma of the human brain is unfathomable,” Acharya and Shukla conclude, the study of mirror neurons opens up “a realm of metaphysical secrets” about the neurological basis of civilization itself. 

Acharya and Shukla do not find that mirror neurons necessarily go away over time, as Hannibal claims, but perhaps Will does have an abnormal amount. Multiple studies link the mirror neuron system to emotions and empathy. People who self-identify as more empathetic present “stronger activations both in the mirror system for hand actions and the mirror system for emotions.” And just look at how Acharya and Shukla explain the “theory of mind” by Vittorio Gallese, Christian Keysers, and Giacomo Rizzolatti: 

“This theory suggests that humans can construct a model in their brains of the thoughts and intentions of others. We can predict the thoughts and actions of others. The theory holds that humans anticipate and make sense of the behavior of others by activating mental processes that, if carried into action, would produce similar behavior. This includes intentional behavior as well as the expression of emotions.”

Will’s overabundance of mirror neurons, according to Hannibal, makes it harder for him to separate his own thoughts and emotions from the thoughts and emotions he conjures about others. As Hannibal quips, Will “doesn’t just reflect; he absorbs.” Imitation thus becomes reality. 

Acharya and Shukla complicate this conclusion, however, by pointing towards another theory. In “Self Awareness: The Last Frontier,” V.S. Ramachandran speculates that mirror neurons can not only teach us about others but also ourselves. Turned inward instead of outward, mirror neurons “create second-order representations or meta-representations of one’s own earlier brain processes,” Acharya and Shukla summarize. “This could be the neural basis of introspection, and of the reciprocity of self-awareness.” By this theory, Will’s neurological predisposition towards empathy makes him more—not less—capable of understanding himself. 

This question—Does Will really know who he is?—seems the very center of an earlier conversation between him and Hannibal. Will’s description of looking at himself in a mirror feels particularly resonant in this scientific context. 

W: I still have the coppery smell of blood on my hands. I can’t remember seeing the crime scene before I saw myself killing her.

H: Those memories sank out of sight, yet you’re aware of their absence.

W: There’s a grandiosity to the violence I imagined that feels more real than what I know is true.

H: What do you know to be true?

W: I know I didn’t kill her. I couldn’t have. But I remember cutting into her. I remember watching her die.

H: You must overcome these delusions that are disguising your reality. What kind of savage delusions does this killer have?

W: It wasn’t savage. It was lonely, desperate, sad. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I looked right through me, past me, as if I was just a stranger.

H: You have to honestly confront your limitations with what you do and how it affects you.

W: If by limitations you mean the difference between sanity and insanity, I don’t accept that.

H: What do you accept?

W: I know what kind of crazy I am, and this isn’t that kind of crazy.

And Will is right—he isn’t “that kind of crazy.” Even when suffering from an undiagnosed autoimmune disease, Will possesses enough self-awareness to realize that his increasing lack of self-awareness is the result of a physiological ailment. After proper medical treatment, Will at last achieves greater clarity about both Hannibal and himself. Free from the disorienting effects of encephalitis, his mirror neurons can operate properly again. Will escapes the funhouse. 

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