Did Jesus have mirror neurons? (part 2)

Mirror neurons are in the news. They may well be the most hyped — and debated! — discovery in contemporary neuroscience. What are they, and what do they have to do with Jesus?

Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1980s by a team of Italian scientists doing research on macaque monkeys. As happens so often in science, their discovery was an accident. The researchers were studying how certain brain areas in the macaque were activated when the monkeys engaged in intentional movements like picking up food. But they also noticed that the same areas would be activated when the macaques merely observed somebody else picking up food.

Monkey see, monkey do. Sort of.

It was hypothesized that there must be neurons in the macaque brain that served a “mirroring” function, and much research conducted since then has supported that hypothesis. Similar dynamics can be observed in the human brain. The hype is that mirror neurons are the physiological basis of such important human capabilities as empathy and understanding the intentions of others. But not everyone agrees, and the science marches on.

So again, what does this have to do with Jesus?

In the previous post, we asked the question of why Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Many commentators have observed that Jesus already knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, and it would make little sense to say that Jesus was weeping out of a sense of grief and loss.

As an alternative, it’s been suggested that Jesus was experiencing deep anger. The words John uses can certainly be read that way. But anger at what? Perhaps the fact of death itself, a big ugly scar on the beauty of his Father’s creation. Perhaps the unbelief of the crowd, particularly if there were “professional mourners” present who weren’t really bereaved.

These are all possible. But I wonder: do we prefer to read Jesus as being angered or sorrowed by sin and brokenness because it somehow seems weak for him to get all weepy over the death of a friend?

What’s at stake here is the full humanity of Jesus. Whichever direction people lean in the debate over the existence and function of mirror neurons, one thing seems certain: human beings are wired to respond to the emotions of others. If Jesus was fully human (and presumably not alexithymic!), then he was subject to the same dynamics of emotional contagion.

You know how it goes. You can go to a memorial service out of respect and courtesy. You may not even feel much sense of personal loss. But then you see other people you care about weeping, and suddenly, your eyes begin to water. It’s not because you’ve suddenly discovered a grief that you’ve denied. It’s because you’re a reasonably intact human being, primed to feel some empathy with strong emotion.

Jesus is repeatedly portrayed as a man of compassion. I do not doubt his anger and sorrow over sin and unbelief, for that too is part of the gospel narrative (e.g., Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34). But when John tells us that Jesus wept, part of the reason is that he sees his good friend Mary racked with grief (John 11:33). And we might suppose that many, if not most, in the surrounding crowd were also experiencing genuine sorrow.

Yes, Jesus knew that he was about to bring Lazarus back. But he didn’t stand there with his hands on his hips scolding people for their lack of faith: “Oh, come on now, people. Dry your eyes and watch this.” He was moved by their grief. And he wept.

Somehow, it’s comforting to know that.