Mirror Neurons Part I: Watching is Moving

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.


8 Responses to “Mirror Neurons Part I: Watching is Moving”

  1. eric says:

    For more thoughts on mirror neurons, peep Jeff’s Time Warp Blog post!


  2. dan says:

    some things about mirror neurons on my mind lately…

    1. when talking to my mom in the past about evolution and christianity, she always mentioned this idea that evolution was ok with her, but at some point god gave us a soul. somewhere in the continuum of mirror neurons/consciousness/etc is the soul? there is this “specialness” referred to by so many as the thing that seperates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. certainly this specialness is tied into the fact that you can internalize external events. you can have the feeling of an event without the actual event. that is damn special.

    2. the horror of solitary confinement. it’s clear that communication with others and the sharing of experiences is a fundamentally important part of our being.
    “And what happened to them was physical. EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.”

    3. evolution, reproduction, mutation. mirror neurons allow you to process an action that you don’t have to do yourself. the power of mirror neurons to accelerate the general process of evolution is outstanding. a major time saver! order now! operators are standing by.

    4. information is free. but this is always on my mind, mirror neurons or not. ;)
    one addendum to number four, the mirror neurons are sort of like a slightly lossy version of git for our lives. http://git-scm.com/

  3. b-radius says:

    a particularly good intro to mirror neurons:

  4. b-radius says:

    Another thought:
    My wife is a choreographer. A challenge that dance and choreography face in academics is that it is often lumped into gym class, instead of being an intellectual discussion. Part of this is the lack of a widely accepted and used notation. It’s harder to point at it and analyze it.

    Dancers in academics talk a lot about “embodied knowledge”. Think about the dancers and choreographers who translate from generation to generation the entire Alvin Ailey repertoire… The subtle gestures are all stored, accessed and passed down via embodied knowledge. And the students, or company, does not go home and read a book about how to do it - they watch the other body and mimic… just as jeff’s tomato kid did. So as an art form (this goes for un-notated music as well), is the training really about heightening and honing one’s mirror neurons? What happens when you take a professional dancer, hook her/is brain up to scanners while they learn a dance from someone else? Is it going to look substantially different than if a non-dancer were to do the same?

  5. eric says:

    I totally feel you on this one. My girlfriend is also a choreographer and sometimes I forget how much “embodied knowledge” is there, always operating in her body. I see it operating in non-dance situations and am pleasantly reminded. Sometimes it comes out in her nuanced analyses of people’s body languages.

    The lack of notation is definitely an issue. And I think that boils even further down to the failure of words to fully capture the essence of human movement. It’s a pre-linguistic knowledge system that really gets overshadowed by our written-word-obsessed culture. There are those theories that talk explicitly about the evolution of language being catalyzed (I think maybe even initiated) by mirror neurons.

    Based on the MRI study mentioned on that PBS site (thanks for that link), it looks like dancers’ mirror neurons get more revved up when they’re watching dancers. It would be really interesting to do a survey on people who go to dance performances—specifically the people there who really feel it in their bones as they watch—and see if there are psychological correlates in those people, with say, stronger empathy, ability to read people, compassion, etc. What personality features does a sensitive mirror neuron system bring about?

  6. eric says:

    Also, it’s amazing to me how one dance can leave me totally “unmoved” in my seat and another can turn me into a puppet, tightly following the dancer’s every twitch. What is it that causes us to quite literally resonate with some movements and not others? What part of our memories / past experiences contribute to this movement sensibility? I guess it’s similar to liking a song or a movie or not liking it. With dance, though, the answer would seem to be tied up in this mirror neuron business somehow.

  7. [...] of meeting someone new. Ideas live exhilarating lives between two live creatures (with the help of mirror neurons, of [...]

  8. Lucy-Kaas says:

    Great idea, but will this work over the long run?

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