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Daily RC Article 168

Mirror Neurons: Unraveling the Neuroscience of Empathy and Communication


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In the unusual properties of “mirror neurons”, a special category of nerve cell, scientists may have stumbled upon the brain mechanisms that give us the power to feel what others feel, to read others’ intentions as though they were our own, and even to get deeply involved in the activity of others during a game of football or a dance performance. The mirror-neuron story begins back in 1995, with a simple observation in the laboratory of Giacomo Rizzolatti.

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The Italian team found that particular nerve cells became active when a monkey reached out to pick up a peanut. That is what you might expect in a part of the brain involved in planning movement. Then the big surprise. When the monkey noticed one of the researchers reach out and pick up a peanut, exactly the same cells became active again. The brain cells fired whether the monkey itself did something or it saw another person or monkey do something with the same goal. Many more of these nerve cells that “mirrored” another animal’s goal-directed movements were found. Before long, a much wider range of related mirror-neuron systems were found in human brains too.

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The new experiments show that when we see someone carry out certain actions, the same parts of our brain are activated “as if” we were doing it ourselves. In essence: We don’t need to think and analyse, we know immediately what other people mean and feel by replicating what they do within the same areas of our own brains.

Language, too, may owe its origins to the mirror neuron system. Any language has a first requirement that the person being communicated with understands the message of the communicator. Mirror neurons provide this first step directly. When a monkey performs an action with its hand, the mirror cells of another monkey watching will register that same action as if it were its own. Mirror neurons could have provided the starting-point for the evolution of a language based on gestures which only later became associated with sounds.

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If our spoken language did come from gestures, then there should still be an overlap between the language areas of the brain and the motor areas. Not only does that turn out to be true but brain scanners also show that one of the most important speech areas is active when we speak, when we gesture and when we see others gesture – just what would be predicted from a mirror-neuron origin of language.

What happens if mirror neurons go wrong? We might expect that people would lose their ability to have a direct, intuitive feel for the mind of other people. That condition sounds very much like autism, which is characterized by defects in social interaction. Recently, Vilayanur Ramachandran measured the activity of the mirror-neuron areas in people by looking at a particular kind of brain wave, called the mu rhythm, which is suppressed when mirror nerves become active. The team found that the mu wave was suppressed when people either moved their hands or watched others do so. But the mu rhythm of autistic people changed only when they moved their own hands and not when they saw other people do the same thing. Autistic people indeed appear to have lost that direct link between watching and feeling that the mirror system may provide.

The discovery of mirror neurons in the 1990s has provided insights into the brain's ability to understand and replicate the actions and intentions of others. When a monkey observed someone reaching for a peanut, the same mirror neurons fired as if the monkey itself performed the action. This phenomenon extends to humans, suggesting a neural mechanism for empathy and intuitive understanding. The text explores how mirror neurons might be linked to the evolution of language, possibly originating from a gestural communication system. Brain scans support the connection between language areas and motor areas, aligning with the mirror-neuron theory of language development. The impact of mirror neurons on social interaction is evident in conditions like autism, where a disrupted mirror system may contribute to difficulties in understanding others' minds.
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