Essays · Reviews

Mirroring Minds

In researching technological mediation (which many of you know has been my most intense intellectual jones over the past few years), I started looking internally a year and a half or so ago. Internally meaning cognitively, thinking that quite a lot of the process I’m trying to figure out is going on inside our heads. I first read about mirror neurons when David Byrne and Daniel Levitin were in Seed Magazine‘s “The Seed Salon,” and I immediately knew I’d stumbled across something I couldn’t ignore.

Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience and music at McGill University, does a pretty good job of explaining the discovery of mirror neurons in that talk:

They were first discovered in Italy where a laboratory was recording from a cluster of neurons in monkeys’ brains. There was a monkey who was just sitting aside waiting his turn, watching another monkey reach for a banana and then peel it and eat it. And a clever technician noticed the cell recordings from this monkey and that his motor cortex was going crazy — the part of his brain that would be active if he were actually reaching for something and peeling it back. They thought this was strange. Do we have our wires crossed? You know, we’re measuring this monkey’s brain and not the other. They looked into all possible explanations.

According to Marco Iacoboni’s highly readable Mirroring People (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), Vittorio Gallese was the neurophysiologist in the lab who noticed the odd neural firing. The neuronal assembly was lighting up as if the monkey was the one doing the action when it was actually just observing it. This has been touted in the field as one of the most important findings of the past two decades, right up there with — and possibly closely related to — language acquisition and imitation.

My interest is in the linking of observing actions and brain stimulation (e.g., how movies, novels, sports, video games, etc. make us feel as if we’re doing the things we’re “seeing”), but mirror neurons also may be responsible for our ability to empathize with each other and other living things.

I’ve been calling the role of mirror neurons “cognitive entanglement,” since the phenomenon is similar to the entanglement of particles that we observe in quantum physics. “So when you watch a performance, sports for example,” David Byrne explains, “you’re not only watching somebody else do it. In a neurological kind of way, you’re experiencing it.” I find this idea both exciting and scary.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine lamented a similar phenomenon, writing,

Stage-plays… carried me away, full of images of my miseries, and of fuel to my fire. Why is it, that man desires to be made sad, beholding doleful and tragical things, which yet himself would by no means suffer? yet he desires as a spectator to feel sorrow at them, and this very sorrow is his pleasure. What is this but a miserable madness? for a man is more affected with these actions, the less free he is from such affections (p. 37).

With a little less storytelling flair and a little more lab-coat lingo Mirrors in the Brain (Oxford University Press, 2008) by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia, the former of whom runs the lab where mirror neurons were discovered, explains the discovery and implications of mirror neurons as well. If you’re more interested in the clinical and technical minutia, this is the book for you. Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia — as well as translator Frances Anderson — break the discovery and function or mirror neurons down to their very last compound.

So, how exactly do mirror neurons work? How do our minds translate what someone else is doing or experiencing into our having the same feeling? As Daniel Levitan put it, “There’s a whole complicated chain of neuroscientific puzzles attached to this question.”