Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2008
What do we human beings do all day long? We read the world, especially the people we encounter.
For centuries, philosophers scratched their heads over human‘s ability to understand one another. Their befuddlement is reasonable: they had essentially no science to work with. For the past 150 years or so, psychologists, cognitive scientist, and neuroscientists have had some science to work with - and in the past 50 years, a lot of science - and for a long time they continued to scratch their heads. No one could begin to explain how it is that we know what others are doing, thinking, and feeling.
Now we can. We achieve our very subtle understanding of other people thanks to certain collections of special cells in the brain called the mirror neurons. These are the tiny miracles that get us through the day. They are the heart of how we navigate through our lives. They bind us with each other, mentally and emotionally.
Mirror neurons undoubtedly provide, for the first time in history, a plausible neurophysiological explanation for complex forms of social cognition and interaction. By helping us to recognize the actions of other people, mirror neurons also help us to recognize and understand the deepest motives behind those actions, the intentions of other individuals.
Page 91 The fact that the major language area of the human brain is also critical area for imitation and contains mirror neurons offers a new view of language and cognition in general.
By the 1940s, say, cognitive science had become dominated by the idea that the operations of the human mind that generate language and higher cognitive functions are akin to the operations of a computer, manipulating abstract symbols on the basis of specific rules and complications. According to this view, mental operations are largely detached from the workings of the body, with the body a mere output device for commands generated by the manipulation of abstract symbols in the mind. That idea - the human mind as something quite like a computer - held sway for about half a century.
Now a different view has become more and more popular. According to this alternative, our mental processes are shaped by our bodies and by the types of perceptual and motor experiences that are the product of their movement through and interaction with the surrounding world. This view is generally called embodied cognition, and the version of this theory especially dedicated to language is known as embodied semantics. The discovery of mirror neurons has strongly reinforced this hypothesis that cognition and language are embodied.
The main idea of embodied semantics is that linguistic concepts are built „bottom up“ by using the sensori-motor representations necessary to enact those concepts…when we talk, we often use expressions involving actions and body parts: kicking off the year, grasping a concept, can you give me a hand, that cost an arm and a leg, and probably hundreds more according to the embodied semantic a hypothesis, when we say, hear, or read these expressions, we actually activate the motor areas of our brain concerned with the actions performed with those body parts..
209 The discovery of Mirror Neurons:...the implications of the discovery is far-reaching, not only for our understanding of imitative violence and possible decisions to address it, but even in philosophical terms. Many long cherished notions about human autonomy are clearly threatened by the neuroscientific scrutiny of the biological roots of human behaviour. Our notion of free will is fundamental to our worldview, yet the more we learn about mirror neurons, more we realise that we are not rational, free acting agents in the world. Mirror neurons in our brains produce automatic imitative influences of which we are often unaware and that limit our autonomy by means of powerful social influences. We humans are social animals, yet our sociality makes us social agents with limited autonomy…
THE NEUROLOGY OF SELF-AWARENESS (2007)
What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to the methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the "turning inward" aspect of the self - its recursiveness - that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.
V.S. Ramachandran (2000)
MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution.
The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution - which I speculate on in this essay - is the single most important "unreported" (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.
Making Up The Mind
How the Brain Creates our Mental World
Our brains have an automatic tendency to imitate any movement that we see. The most striking evidence for imitation in the brain comes from a study in which electrical activity was measured in single neurons in monkeys. Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues in Parma were studying neurons involved in making grasping movements. They found that different neurons were concerned with different kinds of grasping movements. One neuron became more active when the monkey used a precision grip with finger and thumb to pick up a small object like a peanut. Another neuron became more active when the monkey used a power grip with a whole hand to pick up an object like a pencil. In the part of the brain concerned with motor control (the pre-motor cortex), there were neurons representing a whole vocabulary of different grasping movements.
But, to the researchers’ surprise, some of these neurons didn't become active only when the monkey grasp something. They also became active when the monkeys saw one of the experimenters grasping something. The neuron that responded when the monkey picked up a peanut also responded when the monkeys saw the experiment are picking up a peanut. These are now called mirror neurons. The vocabulary of actions represented by these neurons applies to the observation of actions as well as to the production of actions.