Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Mirror, Mirror in my brain

Mirror neurons that is. The author of a recent article in Salon, Gordy Slack, describes them this way:

A young woman sat on the subway and sobbed. Her mascara-stained cheeks were wet and blotchy. Her eyes were red. Her shoulders shook. She was hopeless, completely forlorn. When I got off the train, I stood on the platform, paralyzed by emotions. Hers. I'd taken them with me. I stood there, tears streaming down my cheeks. But I had no death in the family. No breakup. No terminal diagnosis. And I didn't even know her or why she cried. But the emotional pain, her pain, now my pain, was as real as day.

Recent research in neurobiology would explain my response as the automatic reaction of a kind of brain cells known as mirror neurons. On Nov. 4, neuroscientists announced that mirror neurons had for the first time been directly identified in humans. Previously their existence had only been inferred from primate research and the observation of human brains through fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging).

Mirror neurons may explain the roots of human emotions empathy and altruism:

Enthusiasm among scientists has been spreading as growing evidence suggests that "mirrors" may explain the roots of human empathy and altruism as well as provide insight into such disorders as autism and even schizophrenia. But that's not all. In the past few years, dozens of studies have linked mirror neurons to the emergence of language, abstract reasoning and even self-awareness or consciousness. "The self and the other are just two sides of the same coin. To understand myself, I must recognize myself in other people," says [neuroscientist] Marco Iacoboni.

Spotty, what happens if your nearer murrions are absent or not functioning properly?

That's mirror neurons, grasshopper. Apparently what happens in these cases is that you become a Republican:

Along with dozens of studies in neuroscience journals, mirror neurons have also taken a place in the folk psychology battle over how to frame human nature. Alan Greenspan and the rugged individualists may love Ayn Rand's libertarian vision of each person alone against the world, but another set prefers to think of humans as inextricably tied to one another, creating codependent realities and sharing inter-subjective space.

Spot observed in jest some time ago that Republicans just had defective empathy genes. It turns out that may not be so wide of the mark. It may also make you prone to think that religion is what makes us good, while it probably has more to do with our innate nature:

In fact, the problem of altruism has vexed biologists since Darwin. Why do people sacrifice their own self-interest, sometimes even their lives, in order to help others? Genes for such behavior should be selected against quickly and definitively. But if mirror neuron theorists are right, the advantages of directly understanding others may be so great that it blows the evolutionary cost of occasional self-sacrifice out of the water. What's selected for might be the ability to imitate others, and to understand and feel what they are feeling. Self-sacrifice and altruism might be mere byproducts of mirroring and not themselves adaptive in a way selected for by evolution. In any case, "we are good," says Iacoboni, "because our biology drives us to be good."

When you read a sad story and have a good cry, or you cheer at the end of a feel-good movie, thank your mirror neurons. You should maybe thank them for a lot more, too:

Early mirroring must have enhanced our ancestors' ability to learn by imitation -- one primate can "practice" using tools in its head simply by watching another. These new capacities eventually led to the kind of "metaphorical" exercises employed in abstraction of all kinds, including the development of symbolic systems like language, says Ramachandran, whose lab at UCSD is currently investigating the connection between mirror neurons and the human ability to employ metaphor.

"Not just literary metaphors," says Ramachandran in his deep, dramatic East Indian British accent, "but abstractions of all kinds. Once you understand the cross-modal computations that mirror neurons are doing, you can see why human beings are so good at all kinds of abstraction."

Monkey see; monkey do. Really.

Spot likes metaphors; his brain must be one of those mirrored balls they hang above dance floors.

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