Panic Attacks and Mirror Neurons

Kevin Boettcher, Instructor, UW-Madison Writing Center

Kevin Boettcher, Instructor, UW-Madison Writing Center

If you’ve ever staffed a writing center or tutoring center in an evening, you’ve probably seen your fill of pure, visceral panic. I’m in my third semester as a Writing Center instructor now, and I’ve been in the trenches. Most times, you can see the warning signs a long way off: the wide, intense eyes; the shallow breathing; the kung-fu grip on a partial draft or outline of an assignment; even the hunched, tense shoulders typically found in fugitives and air traffic controllers. The assignment is due tomorrow, and so much hinges on it: a passing grade in the course, a place in a competitive program, the respect of a professor. It’s just too much. And, dear god, it’s already 6:00 PM. If I was a bartender, I’d pour the student a stiff drink; if I was a doctor, I’d prescribe a mild sedative; but since I’m a Writing Center instructor, I go with a different tool. “Oh, yeah,” I say, nodding knowingly. “I’ve been there before. So let’s see what we can do.”

The thing is, in most cases, I have been there. As a high school, undergraduate, and even graduate student, I’ve often been the exact same panicked, miserable student trying to hack out an assignment in the eleventh hour. And when they stumble into the main Writing Center or a satellite location, I can recognize the members of my tribe, and I want to guide them, like the Moses of procrastinators, to the promised land. I know from firsthand experience that, in those moments of writerly panic, it becomes about so much more than the writing. The fear and the regret enter into a sort of horrifying feedback loop that spurs bouts of panicked writing interspersed with violent self-recriminations. You vacillate between forcing yourself to do the work and thinking back to the bad decisions and wasted hours that put your back against that wall in the first place. Worse yet, the whole thing is tremendously isolating. You feel like you have no one to blame but yourself. You feel alone in your struggle. Everybody else is a responsible human being who does their work ahead of time and you’re the stupid, stupid, stupid outlier who doesn’t.

Boy oh boy, I know.

Yet, even though I’m a well-worn traveler in that land, it’s still tough to manage those exchanges. Conferences with students in semi- or full-blown panic tend to be threatened by a mix of high expectations, the need for immediate pay-offs rather than long-term improvement, and the mental fog that makes it difficult to dwell on real, substantive plans for writing or revision. For such writers, their very bodies work against them. When we enter a state of panic, our bodies start producing catecholamine hormones – specifically adrenaline and noradrenaline – which dull our advanced mental faculties in order to prepare us for sudden muscular action. It’s the reason why, when you’re furiously hacking through a last-minute assignment, you’re probably more inclined to sprint screaming from the library rather than serenely churning out a couple of paragraphs, though the latter is clearly the path to self-preservation. Your mental chemistry begins to push out higher-order thought and problem solving in favor of the primal functions of your autonomic nervous system. In general, fight-or-flight mechanisms might be great for helping us escape from a grizzly bear in the wild, but they’re pretty lousy at helping us finish that book review due at 8:00 AM.

We're not quite there yet. Also, you probably shouldn't touch your student's face.

We're not quite there yet. Also, you probably shouldn't grab anybody's face.

In these all-too-familiar situations for writing center instructors, one of the most powerful tools we have to disarm those potential obstacles, both psychological and physiological, is empathy. I’d argue that empathy goes beyond simply “understanding” the student’s plight; rather, it is, in its most basic form, the imaginative capacity to feel what another is feeling, the ability to literally put yourself in the place of the other person (think about it as a Vulcan mind-meld) and to reflect that awareness in your speech and actions. For me, that often entails simple gestures – direct eye contact, sympathetic nodding, sharing personal and not-particularly-complimentary anecdotes from my own writing – in the first few minutes of the conference. More often than not, though, this means retreating from your role as an expert and revealing yourself as imperfect…but experienced in understanding and grappling with those very imperfections.

By empathizing, and by expressing that empathy to our students in an authentic way, we open up some important possibilities. First, we’re able to work against that damaging, pervasive sense of isolation that tends to encapsulate students struggling with their writing. We’re able to see things from their side and to make them aware that they are not, as it were, the only imperfect writer on Earth. Second, we’re able to better see the mental undercurrents – doubt, regret, self-recrimination, intellectual despair – that can be just as damaging to the process and products of writing as flawed organization or poor paragraph structure. And, finally, we’re able to give them the chance to absorb the easy, placid tone and approach that we inhabit. For instance, I’m usually a high-octane instructor – I try to infect my students with my own excitement for their project – but whenever I meet with a student who’s under the gun, I try to talk slowly, deliberately, gently (what I’d call my “horse-whisperer” voice). Empathy is, after all, a two-way street.

Mirror Neurons: This is your brain on empathy.

Mirror Neurons: This is your brain on empathy.

Lucky for us, we’re biologically disposed towards empathy. One of the great findings of neuroscience from the last decade is what researchers call “mirror neurons.” Whenever you see someone going through something painful or uncomfortable – say, watching a spider crawl up somebody’s arm or seeing your awkward friend say something spectacularly embarrassing in a social situation – your brain fires the same neurons as if you were experiencing the sensation yourself. It’s the same reason why movies and television so often make us cringe and squirm when we see pain or embarrassment (just watch an episode of The Office to see what I mean). Common-sense as this idea might seem, it actually has enormous repercussions for how we view human beings and their interactions as a whole. The author and ethicist Jeremy Rifkin spins this out into a sort of grand theory of global empathy, arguing that this physiological “soft-wiring,” coupled with greater networks of communication and disintegrating national, cultural, and religious boundaries, shows immense promise for the human race. (You can watch his 10-minute RSA, complete with animation, here.) And, small-scale though it might seem in comparison, our work in the Writing Center partakes of that: in each conference, we open empathetic avenues between writer and instructor.

But this tool of mutual identification is only a soft wiring in our brains: as Rifkin points out, cultural constraints and specific experiences can disable its full capacities. Like any neural network, it’s something that we need to cultivate and keep healthy, and I think this is doubly true for Writing Center instructors across almost all of the work that we do. Sometimes empathy is a short leap into familiar territory – like when I find myself with a panicked, procrastinating writer or a fellow graduate student reeling under the weight of seminar paper – but sometimes we need to stretch a bit further to grasp the experience. For example, I’ve never had to write my first college essay in my second or third language, nor have I been a woman or a minority working in a field dominated by white men. I’ve never had to deal with the pressures of writing a social science article for publication, a thirty-page lab report, or a $500,000 grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health. The truth is, like most of us, there are a lot of things I haven’t done, experienced, thought, or written. Yet by following the instincts of our mirror neurons, by attempting to feel or see or think as the students who meet with us – even if we never quite get a Spockian mind-meld going – we open up the possibility of doing something remarkable.

I don’t think this is particularly novel or groundbreaking. I’ve seen the incredible undercurrent of empathy that our instructors naturally and consistently bring to their engagements with writers, and it’s the kind of thing that restores your faith in humanity. Still, I think it’s something that we can continue to build on in our own work. That might mean talking to writers more about their experiences and, conversely, spending more time telling your own writing war stories. It might be five minutes at the start of a session, or three, or two – whatever it takes to extend that little thread between the two of you. And, day-to-day, it might just be the willingness to take an imaginative leap and put yourself in the shoes of that that tense, wide-eyed student who’s ready to run screaming into the night.

6 thoughts on “Panic Attacks and Mirror Neurons

  1. Kevin, excellent post. I wonder how brain chemists can explain, then, why some people work very serenely under pressure. Unrelatedly, your post reminds me of a talk I heard this past weekend at the National Conference on the Peer Tutoring of Writing delivered by a University of Notre Dame undergraduate writing center instructor who advocated for a “personalist” approach to peer tutoring; such an approach asks us to reach out to others not only with empathy, but with a sense of them as unique beings from unique circumstances, losing ourselves (and our own interests) in the process. The finer points of this can be debated, but it’s nice to hear a resonance between what two tutors at two different locations are thinking about in their writing center work.

  2. I wonder what the research says about ADHD students. It seems like I only performed well with either a deadline or under-pressure. I’m wondering how that affected the creative side of my brain? Would I have had the same decrease in creative writing abilities?

    As far as the empathy side of things: I would definitely say my mirror neurons are on full bore. I seem to have strong empathy feelings and usually can connect with people that way.

  3. Great post, Kevin. Thanks for bringing up something that may get at the “touchy-feely” parts of Writing Center work, but that you show is vital to what we do.

    I wonder if a big part of what empathizing does, as you explain it, is normalize what’s going on so that the last-minute panic is less like a traumatic sabre-toothed tiger attack that demands flight, but rather like an everyday, and even empowering, chance to fight–to work your butt off and get that paper or grant proposal or whatever written.

  4. What a great post, Kevin. Thanks for the reminder–and science lessons–about the importance and power of empathy in writing center work.

    Live long and prosper! [insert smiling Vulcan emoticon here]

  5. I echo the chorus that declares this post excellent. It’s both well written and important. It also got me thinking about the ways this empathy might be harnessed in the discussion of the writing itself. As a tutor, it’s easy to get into a rut of identifying certain “problems” we’re conditioned to see, like weak topic sentences, an introduction that has no thesis, etc, and honing in on them for the writer, who we assume has only unknowingly or accidentally made these “mistakes.” How often to we use our mirror neurons or something like them to really attempt to inhabit what the student was attempting to do with the writing, to see the choices they made as if we had made them, rather than approaching them as evaluators? Performing an empathetic response to the writing itself might be a way of dissolving tutor-tutee hierarchies of knowledge possessing vs. knowledge absorbing.

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