A recent paradigm-shattering discovery in neuroscience shows how our minds share actions, emotions, and experience -what we commonly call “the monkey see, monkey do” experience. When we see someone laugh, cry, show disgust, or experience pain, in some sense, we share that emotion. When we see someone in distress, we share that distress. When we see a great actor, musician or sportsperson perform at the peak of their abilities, it can feel like we are experiencing just something of what they are experiencing.
Only recently, however, with the discover of mirror neurons, has it become clear just how this powerful sharing of experience is realized within the human brain. In the early 1990’s Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleaguesat the University of Parma discovered that some neurons had an amazing property: they responded not only when a subject performed a given action, but also when the subject observed someone else performing that same action.These results had a deep impact on cognitive neuroscience, leading the the world’s leading experts to predict that ‘mirror neurons would do for psychology what DNA did for biology’.
Vilayanur Ramachandran is a neurologist at the University of California-San Diego and co-author of Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind writes that “Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma has elegantly explored the properties of neurons – the so-called “mirror” neurons, or “monkey see, monkey do” neurons. His research indicates that any given cell in this region will fire when a test monkey performs a single, highly specific action with its hand: pulling, pushing, tugging, picking up, grasping, etc. In addition, it appears that different neurons fire in response to different actions.”
The astonishing fact is that any given mirror neuron will also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter) performing the same action. “With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: imitation learning, intentionality, “mind reading,” empathy — even the evolution of language.” Ramachandran writes.
“Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to “read” and understand another’s intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated “theory of other minds.”
Mirror neurons may also help explain the emergence of language, a problem that has puzzled scholars since the time of Charles Darwin, he adds.
“Is language ability based on a specially purposed language organ that emerged suddenly ‘out of the blue,’ as suggested by Noam Chomsky and his disciples? Or did language evolve from an earlier, gesture-based protolanguage? No one knows for sure, but a key piece of the puzzle is Rizzolatti’s observation that the ventral premotor area may be a homologue of “Broca’s area” — a brain center associated with the expressive and syntactic aspects of language. Rizzolatti and Michael Arbib of the University of Southern California suggest that mirror neurons may also be involved in miming lip and tongue movements, an ability that may present the crucial missing link between vision and language.”
To test his idea, Ramachandran tested four Broca’s aphasia patients — individuals with lesions in their Broca’s areas. He presented them with the sound of the syllable “da,” spliced to a videotape of a person whose lips were actually producing the sound “ba.” Normally, people hear the “da” as “ba” — the so-called “McGurk effect” — because vision dominates over hearing. To his surprise, he writes, “we found that the Broca’s patients did not experience this illusion; they heard the syllable correctly as ‘da.’ Even though their lesions were located in the left frontal region of their brains, they had a visual problem — they ignored the lip movements. Our patients also had great difficulty with simple lip reading. This experiment provides a link between Rizzolatti’s mirror neurons and the evolution of human language, and thus it calls into question the strictly modular view of language, which is currently popular.”
Based on his research, Ramachandran predicted that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: “they will provide a unifying framework and possibly even explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”