Saturday, February 13, 2010

Re: [Yasmin_discussions] Simulation and mirror neurons

Dear Derrick,

thank you so much for your beautiful post which helps addressing the simulation to a more general level both inside and outside the human realm (the existence of the mirror neurons is proven in other species too).

You cite Giacomo Rizzolatti, the leader of the team that discovered the mirror neurons:

> "Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others." [...] "Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking."

The mirror neurons' system activates a mirroring mechanism of resonance and motor inner simulation – an "embodied simulation", as Vittorio Gallese, one of the members of the Rizzolatti's team who discovered mirror neurons, calls it [Vittorio Gallese, "Neuroni specchio e intersoggettività" (Paper presented at the conference "Neuroni Specchio. La relazione empatica tra Scienza, Filosofia, Arte e Cura", Ferrara, 2008). ] . This "embodied simulation" enhances intersubjectivity and social relations and literally helps to read into the mind of others.

In both quotations the word "simulation" emerges as a key point and as an usual and general practise.

The mirror neurons' existence in humans was recently put in question by a study (;, maybe because in humans - by now - it's impossible to do the kind of single-neuron electron recording which is common in monkey studies. This (controversial) study was widely criticated, anyway the opposition on the mirror neurons' existence in humans (yes/no) shows the struggle between the two positions Rizzolatti indicates in your quotation above: "feeling" vs "thinking". I think this opposition is shaping (or reinforcing) a paradigm shift.

According to Ramachandran the mirror neurons will be for psychology what DNA was in biology. And they had a primary role in human evolution ( ):

"Is language mediated by a sophisticated and highly specialized "language organ" that is unique to humans and emerged completely out of the blue as suggested by Chomsky? Or was there a more primitive gestural communication system already in place that provided a scaffolding for the emergence of vocal language? [...] Rizzolatti's discovery can help us solve this age-old puzzle."

And later:

"[...] inventions like fire, tailored clothes, "symmetrical tools", and art, etc. may have fortuitously emerged in a single place and then spread very quickly. Such inventions may have been made by earlier hominids too (even chimps and orangs are remarkably inventive... who knows how inventive Homo Erectus or Neandertals were) but early hominids simply may not have had an advanced enough mirror neuron system to allow a rapid transmission and dissemination of ideas. So the ideas quickly drop out of the "meme pool". This system of cells, once it became sophisticated enough to be harnessed for "training" in tool use and for reading other hominids minds, may have played the same pivotal role in the emergence of human consciousness (and replacement of Neandertals by Homo Sapiens) as the asteroid impact did in the triumph of mammals over reptiles."

In the end of your post you write:

> I think that the discussion is highly relevant to the issue of simulation because it indicates that our technological innovations could be part of an inverted function mirroring the mirroring action of the neurons.

Yes, a fascinating position indeed! :-)


Pier Luigi

Il giorno 10/feb/2010, alle ore 23.49, Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a) ha scritto:

> A
> contribution from Derrick De Kerckhove:
> ---
> Action movies (often involving high emotional content and occasionally violent
> and/or erotically charged scenes) directly address physical responses from the
> audience. They work on your sub-muscular responses as if they were a peculiar
> form of gymnastics. To understand the meaning of "sub-muscular" responses, try
> to imagine yourself talking over the phone: can you "see" yourself mimicking an
> actual conversation as if the person was there in a face-to-face conversation ?
> What is happening there is that, even though there is no one to watch you, you
> carry on the normal gestures and facial expressions that would accompany what
> you are saying, not because you are attempting to convince anyone, but because
> that is the way language operates on our bodies in normal circumstances. The
> gestures and expressions are the extensions of thought and speech in the body
> itself. There is a neurological mechanism within our bodies, connected to our
> orientation, defense and decision-making abilities, that plans all our gestures
> before they are actually carried out. This procedure is what conditions our
> sub-muscular response. Even when we read, a residual sub-muscular activity
> sometime helps people to "oralize" the reading process which makes
> understanding easier for some of them (although not all). This tendency present
> in many readers is called "sub-vocalization" and, according to speed-reading
> experts is what slows down the activity of reading among slower readers. What is implied here is that an
> interpretation process may be at work when we watch a movie or see a play, we "sub-muscularize"
> the show.
> The
> point about this is that watching a movie evokes a similar response from the
> viewer and translates the cognitive experience into neurological and muscular
> activities that help to interpret the film or the TV show. For example, have
> you ever caught yourself mimicking a facial expression or an attitude to help
> you make sense of a quizzical facial expression or an uncanny attitude that you
> see portrayed in a film? If you have, you will recognize that simply to imitate
> the expression or the gesture allows you to know it better, to understand its
> relationship to the story you are watching. Even watching a hockey game or any
> sport competition will evoke physiological mimicking responses that help you
> interpret physically and participate in the difficulties of the task. There is
> no such thing as pure "spectator sport". Just try to handle that fierce body
> check in a football or a soccer game without wincing somewhere in your body!
> The same goes for the action movie. Every moment of fear, danger, violence,
> imminent suspense and other common occurrences in an action film generates a
> tension that is a kind of stress.
> The
> theory emerging from the research laboratory of Italian brain scientists may be
> relevant here, that of mirror neurons. According to Wikipedia:
> "a
> mirror neuron is a premotor[1] neuron which fires both when an animal acts and
> when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially
> conspecific) animal. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of
> another animal, as though the observer were itself acting. These neurons have
> been directly observed in primates, and are believed to exist in humans and in
> some birds. In humans, brain activity consistent with mirror neurons has been
> found in the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal cortex. Some scientists
> consider mirror neurons one of the most important findings of neuroscience in
> the last decade."
> Though
> still controversial, if the theory turns out to be verified, it may have
> consequences for the study of media, of performing arts and of the growing
> practice of simulation in general. The acting profession from ancient Greek
> theatre to television, cinema and virtual reality could be no more and no less
> than a biological strategy to introduce new and complex human experience and
> behavior in society. It would go at some length to explain the manner by which
> the spectator accesses emotions that are quite literally projected into him or
> her by the performance.---
> A quote by Sandra Blakeslee (2006) commented in a blog by Charles
> Daney:
> "Cells
> That Read Minds (January 10, 2006)
> The
> cells in question are "mirror neurons". They were discovered around
> 1990 in the laboratory of Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the
> University of Parma, Italy. Researchers in the laboratory had been studying
> brain activity in macaque monkeys.
> The
> monkey brain contains a special class of cells, called mirror neurons, that
> fire when the animal sees or hears an action and when the animal carries out
> the same action on its own. But if the findings, published in 1996, surprised
> most scientists, recent research has left them flabbergasted. Humans, it turns
> out, have mirror neurons that are far smarter, more flexible and more highly
> evolved than any of those found in monkeys, a fact that scientists say reflects
> the evolution of humans' sophisticated social abilities. The human brain has
> multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and
> understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social
> meaning of their behavior and their emotions.
> "We
> are exquisitely social creatures," Dr. Rizzolatti said. "Our survival
> depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others."
> He continued, "Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not
> through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by
> thinking."
> The discovery is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines,
> shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language,
> imitation, autism and psychotherapy. Everyday experiences are also being viewed
> in a new light. Mirror neurons reveal how children learn, why people respond to
> certain types of sports, dance, music and art, why watching media violence may
> be harmful and why many men like pornography."
> ---The balance is in favor of accepting both the fact
> that humans do have mirror neurons and that while they are not the only way to
> do so, these neurons also contribute in helping to understand action and
> perhaps intention. I think that the discussion is highly relevant to the issue
> of simulation because it indicates that our technological innovations could be
> part of an inverted function mirroring the mirroring action of the neurons. Go
> figure!---

Pier Luigi Capucci
skype: plcapucci

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