can’t see the forest

Mirror, Mirror, in My Brain / Let Me Feel the Joy, the Pain

Posted in culture, medicine, neurology, Psychology, Science by Curtis on 12/20/06

Mirror neurons are neurons in the brain of an animal which fire both when the animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal of its kind. The existence of these neurons in humans, in other primates, and in some birds has been strongly suggested by independent research from numerous angles.

Mirror NeuronsThese curious cells were discovered on accident in Parma, Italy, while researchers were conducting experiments on macaque monkeys to learn about those parts of the brain which coordinate motions such as grasping. When one of the researchers reached for a piece of fruit, the same neurons which would be used by an observing monkey to do the same action fired as if the monkey itself were grasping at the food.

In birds, mirror neurons probably play a crucial role in the ability of some species to imitate the sounds around them. This would help to explain why birds are capable of complex mimicry absent the development of other significant forms of imitative learning or of complex communication through language.

Because individual neurons in living human beings cannot be closely studied, their functions in the human brain remain the object of much debate and conjecture and tend to elude exact description. But EEG and imaging techniques have conclusively shown that areas of the human brain do react to observation of an action in the same way as in performance of the action, strongly inferring the presence of a mirror neuron system. The human mirror system would, in theory, be more developed than those observed in birds or other primates. In addition to allowing us to learn skills by watching others, our mirror neurons may be important in allowing us to understand the thoughts and feelings of another.

In autistic persons, the mirror neuron system has been observed to react to observation with far less intensity than in non-autistic individuals. Some scientists believe this explains the inability of severely autistic individuals to empathize and to socialize with other people. However, if this is true, then I wonder—probably because I am not very well educated in neuroscience—why it is that some autistic children are superlatively adept at playing musical instruments by ear, or prodigiously talented in the visual arts. It would seem to me that the mirror neuron system must be crucial to these kinds of activities, so how could a depression in its functionality simultaneously act negatively upon socialization? I suspect that the answer may have something to do with an autistic deficit in processing the rigid structure of language to derive emotional content from it, but that is merely my intuitive speculation and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

V.S. Ramachandran is one of the leading researchers on mirror neurons. In an essay hosted at edge.org, he writes:

The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution — which I speculate on in this essay — is the single most important “unreported” (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.

Ramachandran believes that the mirror neuron system might have something to do with Chomsky’s proposed “language organ” which the great linguist believes is specific to human beings. Whereas Chomsky believes that the human capacity for lingual communication developed more or less “out of the blue” as a function of biological evolution of the brain, Ramachandran suggests that the increased brain capacity of proto-hominids might have simply allowed the mirror neuron system to engage the environment with a new depth. Existing systems of gestural communication could have been expanded to include the imitation of vocalizations. This would imply that human language evolved in progression out of a more primitive system of communication, an explanation which does not require a specific biological entity devoted to language.

NeuronMoreover, Ramachandran believes that the specialized functioning of mirror neurons is the primary catalyst for the development of human cultures, since these neurons appear to be critical to the transmission of practices and ideas and to human learning in general. While brain size and capacity distinguishes us from other primates in this regard, the underlying architecture appears to be similar if not the same.

It remains to be seen how increased understanding of mirror neurons will give insight into psychology and the social sciences, but already we can go forward with a simple principle that sheds at least a little light on everything from mob mentality to classroom learning to the appeal of television: highfalootin’ homo sapiens though we might be, we still owe much of our development (and probably no small measure of our tendencies to conformity and coercibility) to the time-honored monkey see, monkey do.

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One Response

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  1. Gracie said, on 12/20/06 at 5:18 pm

    Interesting! I would add to your belief that we “highfalootiners” haven’t really evolved all that much as a species over time. I still have to ask myself too often, “What year is this?”

    Excellent thought provoking post, Curt.


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