Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mirror Neurons 

Every so often, there comes a book that revolutionizes the world. The book prompts (or marks the start of) what Thomas Kuhn would call a paradigm shift.

- Euclid's Elements
- Charles Darwin's Origin of Species
- Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations

And now, Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others, by Marco Iacoboni.

This book is about mirror neurons. And there is no way in hell that I can explain mirror neurons in a blog post. I've read the damn book, I've sat through a class and listened to psychologists debate the existence of these tiny little things, and I understand them but not well enough to explain them well.

I'll try, because this book...changes everything about psychology. When the media picks up on it, when more of psychology picks up on it (not just the neuroscientists) - there will be a revolution. A paradigm shift.

Mirror neurons fire in imitation rather than action. The classic example is a monkey with electrodes in his brain, so we can note individual neurons. Specific neurons fire when that monkey lifts up a potato chip to eat it. This action has several parts, which I will oversimplify by applying each action to a single neuron. So there's a neuron that fires that represents grasping the chip. One represents the movement of the hand toward the mouth. One represents the taste sensation. And another represents the intent: picking up a chip and eating it.

The scientists have mapped these neurons in this monkey. The scientists watch the lights flash as the neurons fire, because the monkey is eating a potato chip.


The monkey is not doing anything. There are no chips in reach. But a scientist walks by, eating a potato chip.


Neurons in the monkey's brain fire - the same neurons as if the monkey himself were eating a chip, tasting the chip, using the muscles to move the chip to his mouth, and (assuming he saw the scientist pick up the chip) the neurons for the *intent* of eating also fire.

Meanwhile, the monkey doesn't move a muscle. Muscle neurons are firing, but no muscles move.

All I can say is - damn. The implications (supported by research, and explained very well in the book) go quite far. We feel sympathy because our neurons fire in the manner of the person we see, so we literally feel their happiness or pain.

Children play with each other often by imitating each other. At first, they mirror each other's actions (by which I mean, if the kids are facing each other and Paul raises his right hand, Jenny raises her left hand). As they grow older, they imitate by matching left to left and right to right, but the cross neurons still fire. What I mean is: Grown-up Paul raises his right hand, and grown-up Jenny raises her right hand intending to mimic him, but the neurons in Jenny's brain responsible for raising her left hand also fire, even though her left hand doesn't move.

Babies imitate their mothers' smiles and thus discover their own smiles. Babies who learn to imitate smiles earlier than other babies also learn to recognize themselves in a mirror earlier. Such studies, demonstrating mirror neurons, suggest we learn through imitation and that imitation (on a neuronal level) happens without conscious thought.

That's where things get scary. Monkey see, monkey do? Hello, media violence studies? Addiction, smoking, rainbow parties? Free will?

The free will question is not settled (it isn't really settled in ANY field, but it Iacoboni makes no phony attempt to settle it here). At what point does our frontal cortex step in? Or in non-neurology terms - at what point do we exercise judgment?

This book is the first ever to pull together all the data on the existence of mirror neurons (or on the theory of mirror neurons, if you want to be a science purist). Decades of curious lab observations, coincidence, happenstance, and miscellaneous footnotes from otherwise unrelated studies was collected by a small group of people, of whom Iacoboni is one, that is devoted to studying mirror neurons.

And then Iacoboni did the near impossible - he wrote a book that is fascinating to me (I have an MA Psych degree) BUT is also accessible and fascinating to any reader. He rarely use big, science-y words, and when he has to, he explains them extremely well or makes it clear that "that sentence is intended for psychologists, I feel obligated to talk to them, but let's get past that quickly and back to the interesting stuff" (not a quote, just me imagining him talking to his reader).

I read this book very slowly, because every sentence either was mind-boggling or reminded me of some previous research I had read, and I had to go look that up to be sure that Iacoboni knew what he was talking about. Near as I can tell, he does.

I intend to read it at least twice more. I know there is so much I didn't get out of it. Not because the writing is dense. The book is very readable, the tone is cafe conversational. But the implications of mirror neurons -

Have you read Flatland? Do you remember when the flat shape is taken from his two dimensional world and is suddenly able to see three dimensions?

That's how this book made me feel.

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