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Projection, Empathy, and Propagation

By James Idsardi | Inquiry Essay

Dot. Dot. Dot. My classmate’s examination paper was scattered on her desk, pencil tapping on a barren sheet.  Glancing up briefly from my work, I managed to catch her staring out of the classroom window, pencil revolving absentmindedly around her fingers. Briefly bemused, I suppressed the smirk that had spread across my face and returned my focus to the exam. Even as I continued my own essay, I could imagine her conjuring up numerous beginnings in an instant and discarding them in half the time.  Impatient rapping of graphite on desk alerts me to the onset of writer’s block. Beginnings tend to do that to people. I know that well enough.

All these observations of my peer’s frustration arose from self-projection. Having experienced similar situations myself, I attempted to empathize by transposing my own reactions onto her. Nothing novel about that; people project themselves onto others with the frequency and necessity of breathing. In my earlier paper, I examined the effects these projections had on interpersonal communication over the Internet. However, projection’s modi operandi were more opaque than its consequences. For the sake of a thorough inquiry, an intimate understanding of the mechanics that exist behind projection is necessary. Technology must be left behind.

My research has uncovered two different theories of human projection. One, proposed by esteemed sociologist Erving Goffman, labels it a social mechanism that facilitates human expression. Another, championed by neuroscientist Cecilia Heyes, pins it as a consequence of mirror neurons, special cells recently discovered in the human brain. Though these two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, their differences necessitate discussion. Mirror neurons and dramaturgical socialization both provide mechanical explanations for the propensity of humans to project themselves onto others.

Though not a household name, Erving Goffman has nevertheless provided fundamental advances in the field of sociology. Heavily influenced by American sociological pioneer George Herbert Mead, he received his Ph.D from the University of Chicago, and served as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania. Goffman wrote extensively on the social conditions of mental hospitals and how social experiences are organized into groups. His greatest contribution came from his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in the theory of dramaturgical interaction.

Goffman exerts in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that human interaction is primarily based around dramatic performance. The goal of these presentations is for the performer to impress his beliefs onto others. (Goffman 17). These performances consist of three “fronts,” or aspects that facilitate acceptance of the orator’s beliefs: “setting,” which encompasses the surrounding scenery, “appearance,” which designates the player’s social status, and “manner,” which informs their social purpose. To effectively communicate to the audience, the actor must utilize all three effectively and in harmony (Goffman 23-25). Goffman argues that identity is highly malleable, and is constantly redefined to align with the expectations of others. (Goffman 34-35) He asserts that there is not so much a “true” self as there is a series of masks, each worn in the appropriate social situation. “If an individual is to give expression to ideal standards during his performance,” he remarks, “then he will have to forgo or conceal action which  is inconsistent with these standards” (Goffman 41).

To apply Goffman’s theory to the mechanisms of projection, one could argue thus: when one transposes herself onto others, she is actually transposing her masks. Instead of subconsciously reacting to the world around them, an actor’s reactions are refined, and she possesses control over the image that she wishes to emit. Also, since projection is a conscious effort, the actor does not need to believe her own message. However, the thespian nevertheless needs to feign belief for her audience’s sake. Oftentimes this requires she sacrifice her temperament in order to maintain the façade. However, given enough conciliation, the line between conscious and subconscious projection blurs. The projector becomes the projected, her act integrating itself fully into her personality.

If Erving Goffman is obscure in the public eye, then Cecilia Heyes is nonexistent. A senior research fellow in theoretical life sciences at the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, Cecilia has devoted over 20 years to the study of cognitive neuroscience. She has a respectable scientific article portfolio, most of which focuses on animal cognition. However, in recent years she has devoted much of her research towards mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are relatively recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience, and their origins are still unclear. In her recent paper “Where do mirror neurons come from?” in the scientific journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Heyes discusses their function in significant depth.

Heyes uses “Where do mirror neurons come from?” to explain the function of mirror neurons and give two proposals on their genesis. The first labels them as naturally evolved adaptations. The second hypothesis, which Heyes favors, views them as byproducts of associative learning, a procedure wherein biological mechanisms arise in individuals to meet the demands of the world around them (Heyes 576). Their function is to fire whenever a person performs an action, and to fire whenever any action they can perform is seen. Experiments on primates have illustrated this concept well; they receive similar neural stimulation from both sipping juice from a syringe and watching the appropriate mouth and tongue protrusion in other primates (Heyes 577-578).

The corollary of Heyes’ proposal to projection would read as follows: these mirror neurons allow subconscious projection of selves onto other people. By virtue of triggering whenever an action is performed, mirror neurons allow us to understand that other beings are able to perform similar actions to ourselves. In these cases, the projection cannot be consciously controlled; it is simply stimulus-response. It has been theorized that these neurons enable creatures to feel empathy towards one another, but a solid link between the two concepts has not been proven at the current time (Gallese 44).

Despite apparent differences, there is no indication that both dramaturgical performances and mirror neurons are mutually exclusive. Both systems function on different levels of cognition, produce different types of projection, and function under completely different disciplines. It is completely feasible that people may project consciously during social interaction while still being susceptible to subconscious neurological responses. Self-projection as a whole is very complex in humans, and while certain aspects can be simplified, the whole cannot be overlooked. Still, the differences between the two are significant, and it would serve us well to analyze them.

The primary difference between the two types of projection is the cognitive level upon which each one functions. The first, theatrical, solely associates itself with conscious effort. Although there exist cases where individual masks may embed themselves deep enough within an actor’s personality to have residual effect, the performer possesses significant control over what he will or will not project. Mirror neurons, meanwhile, bow only to the unconscious will of the nervous system. Their actions are hardwired into human biology, making any projection involuntary on behalf of the respondent. As a consequence of this automatic response, there is a dearth of available ripostes for mirror neurons when compared to theatrical performance. Mirror neurons never lie in their projections; anything they project onto others is something both subjects can do. However, dramaturgy possesses no such scruples, and the projector can feed their audience fantasies given authoritative enough fronts to work with.

Both dramaturgical socialization and mirror neurons provide compelling explanations for human projection onto others. Both functions are vital in the conduct of traditional human interaction. However, under the irradiative conditions of modern social communication, both are liable to mutation. The performance theory espoused by Goffman was written under assumption of a physical audience in a physical setting. On the Facebook stage, modern actors are liberated from the barriers of setting and free to artifice their appearance at will. Mirror neurons require observation to function, but how do they adapt to a medium that can be obscured at will? Unsure of how humanity will proceed, I pause to ruminate possible avenues of progress. Dot. Dot. Dot.

Works Cited


Gallese, Vittorio. “The ‘Shared Manifold’ Hypothesis: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 8, issue 5-7 (2001). pp 33-50.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959.

Heyes, Cecilia. “Where do mirror neurons come from?” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 34, issue 4 (2010). pp 575-583.

Ocampo, Brenda and Ada Kritikos. “Interpreting actions: The goal behind mirror neuron function.” Brain Research Reviews 67, issues 1-2 (2011). pp 260-267.

Strong, P.M. “The importance of being Erving: Erving Goffman, 1922-1982.” Sociology of Health and Illness 5, Issue 3 (1983). pp 345