Mirror neurons just might be the most exciting neurological discovery of the last twenty years. First described in 1992 in macaque monkeys by neurophysiologists at the University of Parma, Italy, mirror neurons may help explain everything from language acquisition to self-awareness. What are mirror neurons? The story of their discovery and what they do from Wikipedia: “…neurophysiologists placed electrodes in the cortex of the macaque monkey to study neurons specialized for the control of hand and mouth actions (for example, taking hold of an object and manipulating it). During each experiment, scientists recorded from a single neuron in the monkey’s brain while the monkey was allowed to reach for pieces of food, so the researchers could measure the neuron’s response to certain movements. They found that some of the neurons they recorded from would respond when the monkey saw a person pick up a piece of food as well as when the monkey picked up the food…thus, the neuron ‘mirrors’ the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.”
Until recently, we’ve lacked a technology to allow us to safely monitor a single neuron in a human brain and evidence for the existence of mirror neurons in humans was only indirect, obtained through functional imaging studies (in which various areas in the brain lit up when subjects were asked to observe others performing tasks). But a recent study done in 2010 in epileptics was able to measure individual neurons firing and demonstrated that mirror neurons do, in fact exist, in human brains.
From these observations have come fascinating speculations. As Wikipedia notes, “many researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology consider that the mirror neuron system may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. Some researchers also speculate that mirror systems may simulate observed actions, and thus contribute to theory of mind skills, while others relate mirror neurons to language abilities. It has also been proposed that problems with the mirror system may underlie cognitive disorders, particularly autism. However the connection between mirror neuron dysfunction and autism is tentative and it remains to be seen how mirror neurons may be related to many of the important characteristics of autism.“ Finally, in his most recent book The Tell-Tale Brain, V.S. Ramachandran wonders if mirror neurons might not be instrumental in the creation of self-awareness, that in some way they enable us to form meta-conceptions of ourselves.
In addition, Ramachandran argues that the mirror neuron system may be what enabled homo sapiens to leap from gene-based evolution to cultural-based evolution. Cultural-based evolution, in Ramachandran’s words, means simply that “a complex skill initially acquired through trial and error could be transmitted rapidly to every member of the tribe.” He goes on to postulate that mirror neurons might explain the “great leap forward” human beings took between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago when our use of “fire, art, constructed shelters, body adornment, multicomponent tools, and more complex use of language” first emerged.
Culture evolved, Ramachandran theorizes, only because evolution selected for an advanced mirror neuron system in human beings, thus arming us with the ability to mimic and learn from one another. (It’s not hard to imagine the evolutionary advantage the ability to learn from one another provides a species: just look at how human beings have been able to dominate the planet as a result.) In a neurological sense, then, culture could be considered to be the result of knowledge being transmitted via mirror neurons from one member of a species to another, a force that binds individual organisms together as one large organism. How that one large organism “moves” and what it “thinks” seem to be the byproduct of rules that emanate from the interactions of its individual members but that aren’t necessarily discernible at the level of its individual members (analogous, perhaps, to the way the rules that govern the mind aren’t necessarily discernible at the level of individual neurons). (An interesting side note: couldn’t we consider the effect of culture as I’ve described it here, i.e., all the advances that arise out of collective consciousness and cooperation, as providing protection against environmental forces that would otherwise select out “undesirable” traits such as mental illness? Not that I’m in any way arguing we shouldn’t treat mental illness, but in doing so, aren’t we relieving the environmental pressure to select it out of our population?)
One interesting example of a culture arising from the interaction of its individual members all mirroring (or, rather, responding to) one another is the stock market. Pundits consistently rush in with explanations for why the market rises and falls (e.g., concerns about terrorism, uprisings in the Middle East leading to concerns about oil supply, etc.) but those are just educated guesses. Often the market moves in a particular direction for no good reason anyone can identify. But a good reason always exists, and in all cases must be related to the perceptions of individuals that spread (again, via the function of mirror neurons) to others “next” to them—who then spread those perceptions to others (via mirror neurons), the sum of which adds up to market behavior.
And now, for the first time in history, we have a tool that puts anyone and everyone who wants to use it right “next” to everyone else: social media. No longer do ideas take a long time to spread through the members of a culture via traditional media like newspapers and television. Now they can reach everyone’s brain nearly simultaneously in a matter of hours. Because of mirror neurons and social media, the human race has evolved into a hive mind on a scale never before witnessed.
All of which has led me to wonder if the interaction between social media and mirror neuron systems might be accelerating our cultural evolution even faster than previously, enabling our culture to both experiment with new ideas and experience the results of their spread with almost concussive force. Recent world-changing events are beginning to suggest the answer is yes: witness, for example, the birth of democracy out of the largely bloodless revolution in Egypt. For anyone who doubts that human societies have been evolving generally across the globe toward greater humanity and morality (though, we must also admit, unevenly as well), I’d direct you to Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion for a timeline of welcome changes in human and civil rights whose development seems to have accelerated especially in the last century. One wonders, in fact, if this acceleration hasn’t been driven predominantly by the increasing ability we humans have developed to communicate with one another, and that as our ability to communicate improves, so will the speed of societal change.
This is a huge topic, impossible to cover exhaustively in a blog post. But the most important point I wanted to make is this: if ideas have more ability than ever to spread through our culture speedily and affect its progression or regression, we all have an incentive to make sure our ideas are good ones. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Sam Harris at the end of The End of Faith, the world is simply filled with bad ones—and, more to the point, with bad ones that are believed without sufficient evidence. Rumors, as we all know, spread like viruses from one person to another and can do significant and often undeserved damage to a person’s reputation. Bad ideas can do even more and widespread harm that can take many generations, if not millennia, for a society to recover from. Good ideas, on the other hand, can do wonderful things, like protect the rights of minorities and women. So when you’re throwing out that next tweet or putting up an update on your Facebook page, remember that you’re being heard by many more than just those “next” to you. None of us knows when we’ll be the ones to originate the next idea to go “viral” on the Internet. But even if nothing we ever say goes viral, what we say is more than just noise. It’s an influence on everyone around us. So we should take care to be careful what we say. We’re all doing far more than contributing to a global conversation. We’re helping to shape a new global culture. Do we want to shape it well or poorly?
Next Week: When Someone You Love Is Unhappy