Mirror Neurons: The Key to Self-Consciousness and Empathy
Mirror neurons present a theoretic basis that explains the evolution of complex brain functions.
The brain, because of its complexity, is a vast organism with different regions key to the processing of reality and the execution of tasks. But in the brain’s neurofractal sea there is a particular type of neurons that demand more attention than others. These are mirror neurons, those that may be responsible for cognitive processes as sophisticated as synesthesia, empathy, metaphorical language and even telepathy.
Mirror neurons were discovered in 1992 by a team of Italian researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti. They detected the existence of these neurons while studying the brain of a macaque monkey: while it was observing the execution of a task, the same neurons were triggered as while it was doing that same task. In other words, observation works as an internal simulation or a replica of other’s actions. Hence their name: mirror neurons.
Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandram, one of the leading experts and promoters of mirror neurons (called “the Marco Polo” of Neuroscience by Richard Dawkins), believes that these neurons contain the key to human evolution. Self-consciousness, language and empathy –all of them elevated human functions– could be related to mirror neurons. Ramachandram explains:
Here there is a neuron that fires when I reach out and touch something, but we see that the same neuron fires when I watch Joe reach out and touch something. This is extraordinary because it’s as if the neuron were adopting the perspective of the other, as if it were realizing a simulation of virtual reality of the other person.
Self-consciousness, Ramachandram suggests, seems to be a process that emerges from the self-reflection of these mirror neurons:
I have also speculated that these neurons might not only help stimulate the behavior of other persons but also be applied on the self to create second-order representations, or meta-representations of your own previous cerebral processes. This could be the base of introspection and the reciprocity of the self-consciousness or the consciousness of others. This is evidently the old question of the chicken or the egg, but the central point is that both mutually co-evolved, enriching the other to create the mature representation of being that characterizes modern humans.
It seems that there was a definitive point in our evolution, observes the scientist, in which, like promethean agents, mirror neurons helped develop the foundations of language and culture:
Mirror neurons seem to be involved not only in acts such as imitation and emulation, but also in the complex task of taking on the point of view of another person… But why is this important? If we go back to a time some 75 thousand years ago to witness human evolution, we will see that there was a stage of important development of a whole host of new and uniquely human abilities: the use of fire, the creation of tools, the construction of shelter, the use of language and the ability of reading and interpreting the actions of other humans. All of this happened relatively quickly considering that the human brain reached its current size about 300 or 400 thousand years ago. What happened next was the emergence of a sophisticated system of mirror neurons that let us imitate the behavior of other people. That is, when one member of the tribe discovered something, instead of dead-ending within that person, the discovery was quickly and horizontally transferred throughout the population, only later to be vertically transferred to the succeeding generations. This is a type of Lamarckian instead of Darwinian evolution, and it is the base of the mutation of the complex abilities that we know today as culture.
In the essay “Writers from the Sky of Hades”, British writer Jason Horsley suggests that “mirror neurons present a solid scientific base for telepathy, the existence of which would change everything. The thing that mirror neurons indicate is that telepathy is not something that could possibly happen, but is something that is happening all the time.” That is, the fact that our brains are triggered when we observe someone else carry out a task as if we were doing it ourselves, can be understood as common and constant telepathic communication.
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