Picture yourself yawning. If you are like me, the mere thought of yawning causes the desire to open your mouth and take a deep breath. Sleepy or not, you will likely feel this overwhelming urge building up until you finally … give ... in ... and ... yawn. <Whew!> Yes, yawning is contagious. Have you ever wondered why? The answer may lie in mirror neurons.
In the 1980s, scientists placed electrodes on a macaque monkey’s ventral pre-motor cortex to study the neurons controlling its hand and arm functions. During the experiment, the monkey was allowed to grab food and other items food as the monitor displayed the brain’s responses to each activity.
Over time, scientists found that each action – for example, peeling and eating a banana – was associated with a specific neuronal pattern of activity. Other hand gestures, movements, and facial expressions produced other patterns. As the urban legend goes, following one such experiment the monkey being tested was not disconnected from the electrodes – apparently, the tester was more interested in getting to his lunch. When the tester peeled and ate his banana, the monkey’s monitor showed the same neuron pattern of activity as if the monkey was itself consuming a banana. Variations of this experiment showed that there was no difference between the monkey eating a banana itself or the same monkey watching another monkey or person eating a banana. Regardless of who peeled and ate the banana, the monkey’s brain registered the patterns of same activity in what we now call mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons, which are activated both by the thoughts or actions associated with various activities, show us that thoughts carry the same weight as actions. If it does not matter whether one’s experience is real or virtual, then mirror neurons can have positive or negative spiritual effects depending on how they are used. Let us consider the spiritual significance of mirror neurons.
Although virtual reality is generally considered a recent technological development, forms of this medium of entertainment have existed for decades. Of course, early virtual reality machines did not employ sophisticated computers and three-dimensional rendering. Instead, early machines used stereoscopic film projectors. Using a special booth, separate film images were projected to each eye, allowing the brain to interpret the slight differences between the two images as depth. With the addition of stereo speakers and a tilting chair, one could experience a virtual bicycle ride in the countryside while remaining indoors. Thus, the prototype virtual reality machine, the Sensorama, was created in 1962.
With recent improvements in Smartphone technology, virtual reality entertainment has become commonplace. All that is needed now are off-the-shelf items such as a smartphone, headset, and earphones. And as the popularity of virtual reality continues to rise, one wonders what effect this form of entertainment may have on society. To answer this question, we look to the Bible to understand the dangers of virtual reality.
Long before the modern virtual reality entertainment, Jesus once said, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (King James Version, Matthew 5:27-28). While virtual reality entertainment today emphasizes the three-dimensionality of the medium, virtual reality depends more on what is perceived in the mind and not on what is seen by the eye. Sinful thoughts are equivalent to sinful actions and it does not matter if sin is committed in an artificial environment or in a real one.
Evidence for this can also be found in the Ten Commandments. The seventh and eighth commandments prohibit adultery and stealing respectively, while the tenth commandment condemns the thoughts associated with both actions. The tenth commandment prohibits coveting your neighbor's wife, or adultery in thought, and also prohibits coveting anything that belongs to your neighbor, or stealing in thought.
"A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh" (Luke 6:45). Our words and actions are nothing more than a manifestation of what is in the heart. Due to human limitations, we must judge others by their actions because we cannot read the heart. But even when one’s actions are apparently blameless and irreprovable in the eyes of men, God reads the heart and sees the sin lurking within.
So how does this apply to us today? The danger of virtual reality is not limited to three-dimensional images, for even two-dimensional images can be just as problematic as real life. For example, if I were to watch a pornographic video, I would be just as guilty of adultery as if I, a married man, were to directly engage in licentious acts of adultery myself. And what of television shows and movies in general, which commonly use immorality as plot devices? The evidence is unmistakable that God does not dwell in the thoughts of the entertainers of this world. When, for the purposes of entertainment, we expose ourselves to the sinful actions of others, our mirror neurons “light up” in the same way that they would if we were living out the sin ourselves. In other words, when we enjoy the sins of others, we share in their guilt and condemnation.
Technology aside, one can still vicariously experience the sins of others. Romance novels and other literature can be quite explicit in their depiction of sexual acts and are often nothing more than pornography in printed form, so book readers can be just as guilty of adultery as those who watch videos. And when we recount the sordid sins of others in gossip or laugh at humorous, immoral jokes, we bring shame to the marriage covenant through our words. Sadly, the institution of marriage given by God to mankind in the Garden of Eden has been broken far more often than any of us would care to admit. Our conversations and reading habits can lead us into sin just as surely as the programming we watch.
What about competitive sports? Sports promote a spirit of competition and pride and those who excel in sports are often elevated to celebrity status for their achievements. “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6). When boxing underdog Cassius Clay defeated then heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston in 1964 and proclaimed to the world, “I am the greatest…,” Cassius Clay, now known as Muhammad Ali, created for himself only filthy rags in that achievement. And when NBA superstar, Vince Carter, jumps up and slam dunks a basketball over the head of 7’ 2” and 260 lb Frederic Weis in what is now called the “dunk heard around the world,” this feat is also nothing more than filthy rags. And what of Michael Phelps’ historic eight gold medals in a single Olympic Games? Again, filthy rags. As great as these accomplishments are, they do nothing to save these sports stars from the wages of sin.
When there is no difference between the thoughts and actions of sin, it does not matter if we are on the field or in the seats watching the game. Many sports fans do not realize that they might be celebrating in the sins of their heroes. When you watch an NFL wide receiver prance around in a victory celebration after making a game-winning catch, you can be just as guilty of that display of pride as the player dancing like a fool in a stadium full of thousands of fans. When you cheer at the knockout of a boxer, you, who may never have raised a fist in anger, might as well have struck down someone yourself.
Now, to bring things closer to home. When I was in college, I was addicted to video games. At the time, my game of choice was one of the world’s first massively multiplayer online games. Previous online games allowed groups of perhaps a dozen or less to play together; this game improved on the old technology by an order of magnitude and allowed hundreds to compete against one another in real time. My friend and I shared one account and between our combined efforts and there were many times that we reached the top weekly score among the 60,000-plus gamers then playing from around the world. We even held a top-five worldwide rank in that game for over eighteen months straight.
I competed at such a high level of play that skipping even one day caused a noticeable deterioration in my reaction times. When I realized this, it became one more reason to play daily. Every spare minute I had was poured into that game. I played countless all-night gaming sessions and once, I even played over 60-hours straight over the course of a long weekend. My friendships deteriorated and I allowed my grades to suffer. Even worse, I neglected my walk with the Lord. I praise God for the victory He has given me over this deadly habit, for I have friends who were not so fortunate. Unable to overcome this addiction, some have failed medical and dental school because of computer gaming.
I used to think that the sixth commandment prohibition of murder was the easiest of the ten to keep. Nowadays, I realize that I am guiltier of breaking this commandment than all the others combined. Just as stealing in the mind, or coveting, is as sinful as physical theft, I broke the sixth commandment every time I "killed" another player in a computer game. No, I never drew anyone's blood, but I remember the murderous thoughts and feelings I experienced in my gaming. And I am not alone, for there are many murderers walking our streets that escape the notice of law enforcement officials.
When, through continual exposure to violence in our entertainment choices, our minds become numb to the horror of death, what happens to the significance of our Savior’s sacrifice on the cross? If we enjoy violence of any sort, be it a computer game, action movie, or sports event, on what basis can we then condemn the torture that the Jews and Romans inflicted on Jesus Christ? “There is none righteous, no, not one…” (Romans 3:10). When we relish in violence or any other sin as entertainment, we crucify Jesus Christ afresh and put Him to open shame.
The realization that mirror neurons cause us to participate in the sins of others has also led me to reconsider the forms of entertainment and play that are acceptable for children. “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). My son’s sins will be on my head if I were to take him to the latest Star Wars movie and then commemorate the event by buying him a toy lightsaber, for I would have encouraged the enjoyment of sin.
Despite the ways in which we have sacrificed our souls upon the altars of games and entertainment, there yet remains a positive use for mirror neurons. “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). “Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51).
Change from a life of sin to a life of righteousness does not require an experience of sleep in the first death. As we behold the glory – the character – of God, we are training our minds in the habits of righteousness. Day by day, our virtual experience in Christ’s righteousness can become the reality of our lives. Through our mirror neurons, God will put His laws into our hearts and write them into our minds.
“It would be well to spend a thoughtful hour each day reviewing the life of Christ from the manger to Calvary. We should take it point by point and let the imagination vividly grasp each scene, especially the closing ones of His earthly life. By thus contemplating His teachings and sufferings, and the infinite sacrifice made by Him for the redemption of the race, we may strengthen our faith, quicken our love, and become more deeply imbued with the spirit which sustained our Saviour….Everything noble and generous in man will respond to the contemplation of Christ upon the cross” (White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 4 374.1).
I urge you today to rethink your entertainment choices. The trivial fancies of this world are ephemeral; what God offers is eternal. Whosoever drinks of the waters of worldly entertainment shall thirst again. But whosoever drinks of the Living Water, Jesus Christ, shall never thirst. Choose Christ that in you He may be “a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). Immerse yourself in Christ’s righteousness. Pray that God will lead you to give up the virtual realities of this world so that you may enjoy a real heavenly life here and now.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.