Mirror Neurons - A Reflection Into Our Neighbour's Mind
Who are we? What is our place in the universe? How did humanity come to be?
These are seemingly empty, indistinct questions regarding the metaphysical and the unknown. We think these questions can only be answered if we look beyond the fleshy confines of the human body and into the galaxy. I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. The answers to your questions may just lie somewhere very close- somewhere inside our very own minds.
Today, I’m here to discuss with you the topic of mirror neurons. The presence of these neurons is a recent discovery (within the last few decades, in fact) by a group of neurophysiologists in the 1990s. They attached electrodes to the heads of macaque monkeys and had them perform certain actions. What they found was that a particular group of neurons fired not only when the monkey actually performed the action- but when the monkey observed other monkeys perform the same action.
Subsequently, a number of experiments were conducted in different scenarios in humans. The experiments proved that these connections exist in not only monkeys, but in humans as well.
These neurons were found to be primarily present in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex of those monkeys. If you can recall in humans, the parietal lobe is the seat of sensory associations and the premotor cortex has to do with behavior, intelligence and planning of motor functions.
Let’s try to integrate this knowledge with the facts we just learned about mirror neurons.
We know that mirror neurons fire when we observe someone else performing a specific action (even when we are completely motionless). We know that these neurons are present in specific association areas.
Are we forming a connection here? Can you see the synapses being formed between two seemingly distinct ideas? If not, that’s okay. Let’s try to understand further.
Let me ask you a question here. When you see someone reaching out and grasping a pen, how do you know that they are going to write with it? This is a function known as ‘intention understanding’. Not only do we know how to perform actions, but we know why they are being performed. In the example I gave before, we grasp a pen usually to write with it.
Another experiment was conducted to prove this hypothesis. Two monkeys were given two tasks. Reach for and grasp an object and eat it and reach for and grasp an object and place it in a container. One monkey was to perform the task and the other was to observe and vice versa. Let’s look at the results.
These are the sets of actions each monkey had to perform and then had to watch the other perform.
During the first set, Monkey B simply observed Monkey A reaching out and grasping the food, but the region in her brain housing the mirror neurons that fire when she observes another monkey eating are activated. These mirror neurons are effectively predicting Monkey A’s actions. Maybe we can go so far as to call it a form of empathizing with our fellows.
One important clinical application of this hypothesis is the understanding of the Autism Spectrum. Autism is an illness characterized by apathy, loneliness, inability to adapt to social situations and associated sensorimotor defects (head banging, yelling, etc.). One theory is that there could possibly be a defect in the development or maturation of mirror neurons in these children- thus explaining their lack of empathy.
There are, in fact studies that show that people who are more empathetic (as determined by specific questionnaires) have increased mirror neuron functioning.
The reason we watch someone get hurt and imagine that pain. When we look at someone’s smiling face and understand that something happy happened to them. These intricate but profoundly and basically human functions can possibly be explained by mirror neurons. It’s amazing how, neurons that can be discussed only in the context of two or more people can help us understand ourselves and how each one of us put together forms that infinite connection known as humanity.
However, it is enlightening to think about how mirror neurons might have “shaped our civilization”, but it is equally fair to mention that a number of studies have shown inconclusive results when mirror neuron activation were tested for. Other studies also claim to disprove the relation between autism and mirror neuron development. But as long as the true and scientific reason behind our actions and interactions remains unknown, mirror neurons are an exciting explanation to these questions and more.
Author: Shruthi Sivakumar
Sources and citations
Callaway, Ellen. “Mirror Neurons Seen Behaving Normally in Autism.” New Scientist, 12 May 2010, www.newscientist.com/article/dn18837-mirror-neurons-seen-behaving-normally-in-autism/.
Acharya, Sourya, and Samarth Shukla. “Mirror Neurons: Enigma of the Metaphysical Modular Brain.” Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3510904/.