Jan 29, 2014

Mirror Neuron Reflections

Mirror neurons are neurons that fire in an animal when an animal acts or when the animal performs the same action performed by another animal. They were discovered by scientists observing the neural activity of monkeys. They observed a pattern of that neurons fired when the monkey took food to its mouth and also fired when the monkey observed another monkey doing the same thing.

If human experience is manifest in neural activity, then mirror neurons means that when we observe someone performing an activity, then -- in a neurological, but nevertheless physical and real sense -- we experience that activity. Further research has found that mirror neurons are involved in many human activities including language learning, understanding intentions of others, and empathy.

This much you can learn on wikipedia. I'm fascinated by mirror neurons because they connect human brains directly and efficiently, similar to connecting computers in a network (this analogy crumbles if you push it too far, but it does point in the right direction). Mirror neurons communicate on a pre-conscious level to provide a foundation of articulate understanding. Mirror neurons explain why it is so much more satisfying and informative to have a conversation face to face than by voice; or by voice than by email.

Actors, artists, and great communicators are speculated to be more richly endowed with mirror neurons than other, less empathy-oriented vocations. Mirror neurons make concepts like "Zeitgeist" (spirit of the times) easier to believe in. They may provide a physical explanation for otherwise mysterious social phenomenon like fashion, religion, mass hysteria, genocides, enlightenments. Perhaps these are grounded in behaviors shared via mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons don't work if there is not another animal to mirror. So I wonder: In this "age of connectivity," do the screens that connect us over computer networks disconnect the mirror neuron network? Is communication getting in the way of understanding?

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If your interests extend to theory and philosophy, please check out my other blog.