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"Mirrors in Your Brain": Does an Epic Discovery Do for Psychology What DNA Did for Biology?


3065564516_6e85b337e0_z A recent paradigm-shattering discovery in neuroscience shows how our minds share actions, emotions, and experience -what we commonly call "the monkey see, monkey do" experience. When we see someone laugh, cry, show disgust, or experience pain, in some sense, we share that emotion. When we see someone in distress, we share that distress. When we see a great actor, musician or sportsperson perform at the peak of their abilities, it can feel like we are experiencing just something of what they are experiencing.

Only recently, however, with the discover of mirror neurons, has it become clear just how this powerful sharing of experience is realized within the human brain. In the early 1990's Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleaguesat the University of Parma discovered that some neurons had an amazing property: they responded not only when a subject performed a given action, but also when the subject observed someone else performing that same action.

These results had a deep impact on cognitive neuroscience, leading the the world's leading experts to predict that 'mirror  neurons would do for psychology what DNA did for biology'.




Vilayanur Ramachandran is a neurologist at the University of California-San Diego and co-author of Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind writes that "Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma has elegantly explored the properties of neurons - the so-called "mirror" neurons, or "monkey see, monkey do" neurons. His research indicates that any given cell in this region will fire when a test monkey performs a single, highly specific action with its hand: pulling, pushing, tugging, picking up, grasping, etc. In addition, it appears that different neurons fire in response to different actions."

The astonishing fact is that any given mirror neuron will also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter) performing the same action. "With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: imitation learning, intentionality, "mind reading," empathy -- even the evolution of language." Ramachandran writes.

"Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to "read" and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated "theory of other minds."

Mirror neurons may also help explain the emergence of language, a problem that has puzzled scholars since the time of Charles Darwin, he adds.

"Is language ability based on a specially purposed language organ that emerged suddenly 'out of the blue,' as suggested by Noam Chomsky and his disciples? Or did language evolve from an earlier, gesture-based protolanguage? No one knows for sure, but a key piece of the puzzle is Rizzolatti's observation that the ventral premotor area may be a homologue of "Broca's area" -- a brain center associated with the expressive and syntactic aspects of language. Rizzolatti and Michael Arbib of the University of Southern California suggest that mirror neurons may also be involved in miming lip and tongue movements, an ability that may present the crucial missing link between vision and language."

To test his idea, Ramachandran tested four Broca's aphasia patients -- individuals with lesions in their Broca's areas. He presented them with the sound of the syllable "da," spliced to a videotape of a person whose lips were actually producing the sound "ba." Normally, people hear the "da" as "ba" -- the so-called "McGurk effect" -- because vision dominates over hearing. To his surprise, he writes, "we found that the Broca's patients did not experience this illusion; they heard the syllable correctly as 'da.' Even though their lesions were located in the left frontal region of their brains, they had a visual problem -- they ignored the lip movements. Our patients also had great difficulty with simple lip reading. This experiment provides a link between Rizzolatti's mirror neurons and the evolution of human language, and thus it calls into question the strictly modular view of language, which is currently popular."

Based on his research, Ramachandran predicted that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: "they will provide a unifying framework and possibly even explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments."

Casey Kazan

Image credit: David Sambells
http://www.flickr.com/photos/dsambells/3065564516/

Sources:
http://www.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Medicine/Neuroscience/?view=usa&ci=9780199217984
http://www.feedmag.com/brain/parts/ramachandran.html

Comments

I love the part where Ramachandran says that when we see someone else get injured, our brain releases the exact same pain signals. The only reason why we don't feel the pain exactly the same as the person actually getting injured is that we have signals from our actual limb telling us that it's not me who's injured. And the evidence that shows that is amputees with phantom limbs won't have this sensory feedback from their own limb, so when they see someone else injured where their phantom limb is, they'll experience the same pain as the injured person!

The late "discovery" is one of the basic characteristics of what represents part of the essence of a real human being... We would be something akin to a robot without it.

Seeing just the teaser, I was going to write something along the lines of, "Do tell, Sherlock -- it's called empathy."

But then I read the article, and the discovery is clearly another step beyond that. It's not just that we have empathy, or that it's hard-wired into (most of) our brains, but it's a discovery of how and why it functions, and what it does for us.

And that's pretty awesome. Anything that helps us understand how we work is a good thing -- especially if it helps people who, through illness or injury, aren't functioning quite right.

Ancient humans lived in groups of around 30. Language probably did not exist or rational conscious thinking of the type we would recognize. The two basic instincts of self preservation and preservation of the species were the main reason for living. Evolution over time developed a close interrelationship amongst those ancient humans and mirror neurons evolved amongst those who were successful in group living and reproducing. Those who could not live in the, "communal emotional sausage", were ostracized and their genes were not passed on through the ages.

mirror neurons could be an explanation for the evolution of language as said in the article. Being able to somewhat read or feel someones emotions was probably a big step for new levels in communication which later evolved into speakable language.

I think this will explain mostly explain the relationship development in all species being able to feel another persons or animals pain could have led to the evolution of true fear or the stimulants of anger or emotional pity

study serial killers brains to verify this.

I never thought about it like that. It does make sense dude. Wow.

www.online-privacy.edu.tc

Perhaps the mirror neuron phenomenon is more ancient still. It may have a link with basic perceptions of other animals. For example, how would a predator recognize that one of its potential prey is injured, or thirsty, of sick, if it did not somehow resonate with the concept of these conditions within itself?

Perhaps the mirror neuron phenomenon is more ancient still. It may have a link with basic perceptions of other animals. For example, how would a predator recognize that one of its potential prey is injured, or thirsty, of sick, if it did not somehow resonate with the concept of these conditions within itself?

He asks, "Is language ability based on a specially purposed language organ that emerged suddenly 'out of the blue,' as suggested by Noam Chomsky and his disciples? Or did language evolve from an earlier, gesture-based protolanguage?
If it were up to me, I would have to say gesture based came first. The Dog whisperer is a great example of reading the body language, and associating actions with words. Then we get movies and books that help and associate tone, and action with words, and understanding with empathy. We try to put things we see in our subconscious minds and try to make them a reality in our minds. Then we will be able to play with the subconscious mind and do things never were thought were possible to what is reality. In my oppinion. But weve always had a mouth and lungs. and we've learned to manipulate the air we intake, and make emotions out of them.

This is "paradigm-shifting"?

Though I found this fascinating, I think the article shifted its focus towards the end to language development. Related: maybe. DNA to mirror awesome... not so much.

Bah! I have a much better theory, but I keep it for myself!

Recent discovery? I read about it around 2001 or so.

Though I found this fascinating, I think the article shifted its focus towards the end to language development. Related: maybe. DNA to mirror awesome... not so much.

the >new< phenomena of mirror-neurons are the evidence of all the mirror-reflections of the early childhood, so wilhelm reich discribed it in his character-analyse and his bio-energetic and consciousness-structure of human nature...

many scientists have insisted that empathy is one of the big things that sets hominid brians apart from those of all other animals. As far as we know, only humans and a couple species of chimp are able to feel remorse (although Crows sometimes hold 'funerals' for other crows.) These are very tribal, protective instincts, and probably contributed significantly to the development of civilization.

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