Psychic Cells

The New York Times (Cells That Read Minds) and The Wall Street Journal (How Mirror Neurons Help Us to Empathize) published a couple of articles at the beginning of this month about mirror neurons. Now, I don’t generally scour the paper for breaking news on neurons, but I started scanning the Times article and found myself completely riveted.

Here’s why you should care about mirror neurons even if your working knowledge of neuroscience is dwarfed by your grasp of, say, Project Runway trivia.

The Strange and Mystical World of Mirror Neurons may help to explain:

*The biological foundation of empathy
*Why woman are typically more empathetic than men
*What causes Autism

These are three of the questions scientists are exploring based on the discovery of mirror neurons. Interested yet? I was.

Here is the cocktail party version of the discovery of mirror neurons.

In the summer of 1990, a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Parma wandered into his lab to check on his monkey. The monkey had a set of wires implanted in the ventral premotor area of its brain–the part of the frontal lobe understood to control movement. (For more info see: Everything2) The implants allowed researchers to monitor brain activity every time the monkey moved. It being a hot day, the grad student had gone and fetched himself an ice cream cone. He stood licking away at it as he surveyed the monkey. Then, something strange happened. A monitor, rigged to emit a sound whenever the monkey moved, started chirping every time the student brought the ice cream cone to his mouth.

Apparently, this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Researchers had noted similar activity when a monkey watched people and fellow test subjects eating everything from peanuts, to raisins, and—well, err–bananas. Despite repeated incidents like this one, it took the researchers a while to conquer their disbelief, according to Blakeslee’s article, “Cells That Read Minds.” Once they mastered their incredulity, however, they soon discovered that monkeys have a specialized group of cells, which fire every time the animal performs an action and–more startlingly, when it sees or hears someone else performing the same action.

Okay, you say, but that was 16 years ago. Why are we hearing about this now? Well, recently, scientists have discovered that humans also have mirror neurons. Our mirror neurons (somewhat predictably) are a more advanced than monkeys. And the discovery of this highly attuned group of cells, Blakeslee says, “is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, autism and psychotherapy.” So, what makes mirror neurons so special? According to Blakeslee:

Most nerve cells in the brain are comparatively pedestrian. Many specialize in detecting ordinary features of the outside world . . . Moving to higher levels of the brain, scientists find groups of neurons that detect far more complex features like faces, hands or expressive body language . . . Mirror neurons make these complex cells look like numbskulls. Found in several areas of the brain . . . they fire in response to chains of actions linked to intentions.

Studies show that some mirror neurons fire when a person reaches for a glass or watches someone else reach for a glass; others fire when the person puts the glass down and still others fire when the person reaches for a toothbrush and so on. They respond when someone kicks a ball, sees a ball being kicked, hears a ball being kicked and says or hears the word “kick.”

So, what exactly does all of this mean? This quote from UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Marco Iacoboni brings things sharply into focus:

“When you see me perform an action–such as picking up a baseball–you automatically simulate the action in your own brain,” said Dr. Marco Iacoboni . . . When you see me pull my arm back, as if to throw the ball, you also have in your brain a copy of what I am doing and it helps you understand my goal. Because of mirror neurons, you can read my intentions. You know what I am going to do next.”

He continued: “And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling.”
(From Cells That Read Minds)

So, mirror neurons are, essentially, psychic cells that allow you to anticipate the actions of others and mimic their emotions. Do you have the shivers yet?