A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal, especially of like species. They have been observed in primates and most probably exist in humans. I’ve known about mirror neurons for some time now, but have only recently been hit over the head with the scientific, artistic, and personal significance of their discovery.
They form a deeply beautiful network of silent movement among living creatures. They presence implies that, even in stillness, we move with the living world around us. They make us living seismographs on which the moving animal world perpetually and silently plays itself out. We move with those around us, not merely seeing others doing, but essentially doing with them. We move in synchronicity, dancing our own internal interpretation of a common dance.
The processes of evolution has tangled and cross-wired our sensory systems; mirror neurons are yet another piece of evidence pointing toward our inherent metaphorical nature. Watching another move means moving with another. Sight as movement.
A set of very distinct human feelings likely arise from this automatic neural transcription. Gallese, a co-discoverer of mirror neurons, has proposed a theory of embodied simulation, wherein mirror neurons form the bases for empathetic experience. We know what it feels like to be someone else in a deeper sense than we could have ever imagined. Every day, we are constantly putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes; in fact we putting ourselves in their entire bodies.
(I can’t help thinking about every time I’ve ever cringed watching a groin shot on America’s Funniest Home Videos.)
Despite the lack of evidence, I am intrigued with Ramachandran’s speculation that mirror neurons were responsible for the great leap in technological sophistication that occurred around 40 thousand years ago. He proposes that they could have allowed accidental cultural mutations to spread quickly through the population by facilitating imitation learning. He speaks of mirror neurons allowing us to read and understand another’s intentions, thus developing a sophisticated theory of other minds.
Rizzolati, a co-discoverer of mirror neurons, talks about them enabling humans to mime—and possibly understand—the lip and tongue movements of others, which could provide a means for language to evolve. There is a linguistic theory that posits the evolution of language from isomorphisms where, for example, the sounds created by upward placement of the tongue correspond to words with upward connotations. I could imagine mirror neurons being responsible for the initial mappings of such movements from the world onto the musculature of our mouths.
The operation of mirror neurons in our experience presents an entirely new kind of understanding of interpersonal relationships, one to which the entire body—not just the mind— is an integral part. Theories of consciousness that forgo mind/body dualities begin to make much more sense to me in light of mirror neurons. The body becomes a vital stage in our interpersonal experience.
The concept of mirror neurons provides a real physiological basis for the metaphor of resonance between individuals. As early as the 1933, dance critic John Martin proposed a theory of muscular sympathy or metakinesis in which audience members played the movements of the dancers out in their musculature. It turns out that this phenomenon is probably real.
Perhaps one day mirror neurons will receive sensory status; a sixth sense of movement perception among living creatures.