Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Human see; human do."

There was a fascinating interview on NPR's Fresh Air earlier today. I particularly enjoyed this section:
If you're just joining us, we're speaking with V.S. Ramachandran. He is a behavioral neurologist and author of the new book "The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neural Scientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human."

You write a lot about mirror neurons and the role that they played on our evolution. You want to just tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Well, mirror neurons were not discovered by us, obviously. They were discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti in Parma, Italy, and his colleagues. And what they refer to is in the front of the brain, the motor and pre-motor cortex, there are neurons that issue commands to your hands and other parts of your body to perform specific actions, semi-skilled actions, skilled actions or even non-skilled actions. So these are motor-command neurons which orchestrate specific sequence of muscle twitches for you to reach out and grab a peanut, for example, or put it in your mouth.

What Rizzolatti and his colleagues found was some of these neurons, as many as 20 percent or 30 percent, will fire not only when - let's say I'm measuring mirror neuron activity in your brain. So when you reach for a peanut, these neurons fire. But the astonishing thing is these neurons will also fire when you watch me reaching for a peanut so these are promptly dubbed mirror neurons for obvious reasons. So it's as though your brain is performing a virtual reality simulation of what's going on in my brain, saying, hey, the same neuron is firing now when he's doing that as would fire when I reach out and grab a peanut, therefore, that's what that guy's up to.

He's about to reach out and grab a peanut. So it's a mind-reading neuron. It's essential for you seeing other people as intentional beings who are about to perform certain specific intended actions.

DAVIES: And that might have helped us learn from one another and thereby advanced culturally far beyond our...

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: That's correct. That's the stuff - that's kind of an obvious behind-site, but that's the claim I made, oh, about 10 years ago in a website run by Brockman called "Edge." And what I pointed out was - and others have pointed this out, too, is that mirror neurons obviously are required for imitation and emulation. So if I want to do something complicated that you're doing and I want to imitate it, I have to put myself in your shoes and view the world from your standpoint. And this is extremely important.

It seems like something trivial, you know, mimicry, but it's not. It's extremely important because imitation is vital for certain types of learning, rudimentary types of learning. These days you learn from books and other things, but in the early, early days when hominids were evolving, we learned largely from imitation. And there's a tremendous acceleration of evolution illusionary process. What I'm saying is maybe there are some outliers in the population who are especially smart simply because of genetic variation, who have stumbled, say, accidentally on an invention, like fire or skinning a bear.

Without the mirror neuron system being sophisticated, it would have died out, fizzled out immediately. But with a sophisticated mirror neuron system, your offsprings can learn that technique by imitation so it spreads like wild fire horizontally across a population and vertically across generations. And that's the dawn of what we call culture and therefore, of civilization.

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