Sunday, 21 April 2013

Enactivism and Mirror Neurons

Imitation and physical coupling are believed to support bonding and relationship formation. There is a school of thought that imitation is not merely a social skill, but results directly from the existence of so called mirror neurons in the brain. A leading proponent of this theory is  V. S. Ramachandran, who in his essay “Mirror Neurons and Their Role in Human Evolution” goes so far as to say that this is how language developed:

“Moreover, as Rizzolati has noted, these neurons may also enable you to mime — and possibly understand — the lip and tongue movements of others which, in turn, could provide the opportunity for language to evolve. (This is why, when you stick your tongue out at a new born baby it will reciprocate! How ironic and poignant that this little gesture encapsulates a half a million years of primate brain evolution)”

Mirror neurons fire both when we act and when we observe another doing the same act. Invasive experiments on the brains of macaque monkeys provides direct evidence of the existence of mirror neurons. Although it is normally not possible to directly observe neural activity in human brains, it is possible to infer similar neural activity using fMRI. The existence of mirror neurons is not universally accepted, for example the neurophilosophers Patricia Churchland (Braintrust) has expressed both scientific and philosophical objections to the theory.
If we accept the mirror neuron model and take an enactivist view of the mind then we have a compelling model for interpreting the thoughts and intentions of others from their actions (we know what we're thinking when we do things, therefore when we see someone else doing it we can infer their thoughts). Is it going too far to propose that our minds merge as we match each other's actions in a coupled system? According to Marco Iacoboni one third of the mirror neurons are what's known as "strictly congruent" - firing when observing exactly the same action and two thirds are "broadly congruent" mirror neurons - firing when observing an action achieving the same goal or logically related to the action. So, in fact we share not only what's actually going on but also what goals we have in mind - maybe that's why we step in front of each other in a corridor: I turn your goal into my action! 

1 comment:

  1. Mirror neurons are indeed a fascinating topic! They have recently inspired the development of new therapies, especially for the facilitation of post-stroke language recovery. Here is an interesting article about IMITATE, a treatment for aphasia based on action observation and imitation: