January 11, 2006

Polish Your Mirror Neurons

They're the hot item in neuroscience today, and they could help explain how we learn, why we feel empathy, why we are thrilled by sports events or novels or movies -- or turned on by porn -- and why some of us are born autistic. Mirror neurons are brain cells that activate our feeling sensations when we observe other people doing things. They fire in response to intentional actions.

From NYT:

"When you see me perform an action - such as picking up a baseball - you automatically simulate the action in your own brain," said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies mirror neurons. "Circuits in your brain, which we do not yet entirely understand, inhibit you from moving while you simulate," he said. "But you understand my action because you have in your brain a template for that action based on your own movements.

"When you see me pull my arm back, as if to throw the ball, you also have in your brain a copy of what I am doing and it helps you understand my goal. Because of mirror neurons, you can read my intentions. You know what I am going to do next."

He continued: "And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling."

Mirror neurons seem to analyzed scenes and to read minds. If you see someone reach toward a bookshelf and his hand is out of sight, you have little doubt that he is going to pick up a book because your mirror neurons tell you so.

In a study published in March 2005 in Public Library of Science, Dr. Iacoboni and his colleagues reported that mirror neurons could discern if another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table. "Mirror neurons provide a powerful biological foundation for the evolution of culture," said Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the U.C.L.A. who studies human development.

A dissenting scientist at this interdisciplinary virtual workshop doubts whether the brain actually simulates the observed action; nevertheless, he admits, "the existence of such neurons does indeed suggest that the representation of executed and observed actions may share neural resources..."

Is vicarious experience the root of human culture? Are we the voyeur species?