Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is best known for his work on mirror neurons, a small circuit of cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex. What makes these cells so interesting is that they are activated both when we perform a certain action—such as smiling or reaching for a cup—and when we observe someone else performing that same action. In other words, they collapse the distinction between seeing and doing. In recent years, Iacoboni has shown that mirror neurons may be an important element of social cognition and that defects in the mirror neuron system may underlie a variety of mental disorders, such as autism.
His book, Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect to Others, explores these possibilities at length. Here is what he says about how mirror neurons might help us understand what we perceive someone else is thinking and feeling.
What do we do when we interact?
IACOBONI: We use our body to communicate our intentions and our feelings. The gestures, facial expressions, body postures we make are social signals, ways of communicating with another one. Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people. The way mirror neurons let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to simulate the intentions and emotions associated with those actions. When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing.
People with autism have a hard time understanding the mental states of other people; this is why social interactions are not easy for them. Reduced mirror neuron activity obviously weakens the ability of these people to experience immediately and effortlessly what other people are experiencing, thus making social interactions is particularly difficult for them. The ones with autism have also often motor problems and language problems. Mirror neurons are just special types of premotor neurons, brain cells essential for planning and selecting actions. It has been also hypothesized that mirror neurons may be important in language evolution and language acquisition. Indeed, a human brain area that likely contains mirror neurons overlaps with a major language area, the so-called Broca’s area. Thus, a deficit in mirror neurons can in principle account for three major symptoms of autism, the social, motor and language problems.
are brain cells specialized for actions. They are obviously critical cells for social interactions. Everything in the brain is interconnected, so that the activity of each cell reflects the dynamic interactions with other brain cells and other neural systems.
“If we’re wired to automatically internalize the movements and mental states of others, then what does this suggest about violent movies, television programs, video games, etc? Should we be more careful about what we watch?”
IACOBONI believes we should be more careful about what we watch. He says it is a tricky argument, of course, because it forces us to reconsider our long cherished ideas about free will and may potentially have repercussions on free speech. There is convincing behavioral evidence linking media violence with imitative violence. Mirror neurons provide a plausible neurobiological mechanism that explains why being exposed to media violence leads to imitative violence. What should we do about it? Although it is obviously hard to have a clear and definitive answer, it is important to openly discuss this issue and hopefully reach some kind of social agreement on how to limit media violence without limiting too much free speech.
AyaToday.Com likes to give you some homework. The question you will ask yourself is not how you are wired, nor what you believe, or how to improve that but WHY you believe what you believe. Answer, Do I experience the feeling of knowing I am the only one in the room, while mirroring the assumptions about –fill in the blank– to myself and about myself? Time to wake up.