Reading Diary
June 2008

How can we "know" about the Unknowable?
How can we talk about the Unspeakable?

... reading a book about "mirror neurons" . I remember reading about the research of neuroscientists and their discovery of a new kind of neurons which they called "mirror" neurons about ten years ago. I also remember my first impression: This is very, very important! It will help a lot to think in a new way about human communication, human language and human thinking.

Marco Iacoboni
Mirroring People
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.
The empirical study of
intention has always been considered almost impossible, because intentions were deemed too mental to be studied with empirical tools. How do we even know that other people have mental states similar to our own? Philosophers have mulled over this „problem of other minds“ for centuries, with very little progress. Now they have some real science to work with. Research on mirror neurons gives them - and everyone interested in how we understand one another - some remarkable food for thought.

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 are 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 brain as a computer (Gerald Edelman)
- imitation
- empathy
- embodied mind (Francisco Varela)

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.

June the works if the Sixth Patriarch Hui neng, I found a translation of the Platform-Sutra that pointed me to the Buddhist term "non-duality" - isn't the functioning of mirror neurons, the fact that they are active when I do and when another does the same as "non-duality"?

The Sutra of Hui-neng
Translated from the Chinese by
Thomas Cleary
Shambala 1998

Page 14
Ordinary people see the body and the world as two; the wise realise their essential nature is not two. The non-dual nature is the buddha-nature..

Hui-neng said: There is no demonstration or transmission; it is only a matter of seeing nature, not a matter of meditation or liberation.
Yin-tsung asked: Why is it not a matter of meditation and liberation?
Hui-neng said: Because these two things are not Buddhism; Buddhism is a non-dualistic teaching.
Yin-tsung asked: What is the non-dualistic teaching of Buddhism?
Hui-neng said: Your lecture on the Nirvama-Sutra, which explains buddha-nature.
This is the non-dualistic teaching of Buddhism. Buddha said, roots of goodness are twofold, one permanent, one impermanent. Essential buddha-nature is neither permanent nor impermanent, so it is not cut off; that is called non-duality. Oneness is good, dualism is not good. The essential buddha-nature is neither good nor not good; this is called non-duality.
Ordinary people see the body and the world as two; the wise realise their essential nature is not two. The non-dual nature is the buddha-nature.

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