When I learned about this scientific concept of mirror neurons, I finally understood at a biological level how humans bond. As I have always wanted to believe, if one can understand the maechanics of a process, one can duplicate it or hack the process to make it better or give it the results one desires.
If you learn about the idea and use of mirror neurons, you will have a better chance of increasing your influence of others and lead others by examples. From the New York Times…
Cells That Read Minds
MONKEY SEE When a monkey watches a researcher bring an object—an ice cream cone, for example— to his mouth, the same brain neurons fire as when the monkey brings a peanut to its own mouth. In the early 1990’s, Italian researchers discovered this phenomenon and named the cells “mirror neurons.”
On a hot summer day 15 years ago in Parma, Italy, a monkey sat in a special laboratory chair waiting for researchers to return from lunch. Thin wires had been implanted in the region of its brain involved in planning and carrying out movements.
A graduate student entered the lab with an ice cream cone in his hand. The monkey stared at him. Then, something amazing happened: when the student raised the cone to his lips, the monitor sounded – brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip – even though the monkey had not moved but had simply observed the student grasping the cone and moving it to his mouth.
The researchers, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, had earlier noticed the same strange phenomenon with peanuts. The same brain cells fired when the monkey watched humans or other monkeys bring peanuts to their mouths as when the monkey itself brought a peanut to its mouth.
Later, the scientists found cells that fired when the monkey broke open a peanut or heard someone break a peanut. The same thing happened with bananas, raisins and all kinds of other objects.
“It took us several years to believe what we were seeing,” Dr. Rizzolatti said in a recent interview. 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.
How can a single mirror neuron or system of mirror neurons be so incredibly smart?
Most nerve cells in the brain are comparatively pedestrian. Many specialize in detecting ordinary features of the outside world. Some fire when they encounter a horizontal line while others are dedicated to vertical lines. Others detect a single frequency of sound or a direction of movement.
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. Still other neurons help the body plan movements and assume complex postures.
Mirror neurons make these complex cells look like numbskulls. Found in several areas of the brain – including the premotor cortex, the posterior parietal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus and the insula – 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.”
“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, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies mirror neurons. “Circuits in your brain, which we do not yet entirely understand, inhibit you from moving while you simulate,” he said. “But you understand my action because you have in your brain a template for that action based on your own movements.
“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.”
Mirror neurons seem to analyzed scenes and to read minds. If you see someone reach toward a bookshelf and his hand is out of sight, you have little doubt that he is going to pick up a book because your mirror neurons tell you so.
In a study published in March 2005 in Public Library of Science, Dr. Iacoboni and his colleagues reported that mirror neurons could discern if another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table. “Mirror neurons provide a powerful biological foundation for the evolution of culture,” said Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the U.C.L.A. who studies human development.
Until now, scholars have treated culture as fundamentally separate from biology, she said. “But now we see that mirror neurons absorb culture directly, with each generation teaching the next by social sharing, imitation and observation.”
Other animals – monkeys, probably apes and possibly elephants, dolphins and dogs – have rudimentary mirror neurons, several mirror neuron experts said. But humans, with their huge working memory, carry out far more sophisticated imitations.
Language is based on mirror neurons, according to Michael Arbib, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California. One such system, found in the front of the brain, contains overlapping circuitry for spoken language and sign language.
In an article published in Trends in Neuroscience in March 1998, Dr. Arbib described how complex hand gestures and the complex tongue and lip movements used in making sentences use the same machinery. Autism, some researchers believe, may involve broken mirror neurons. A study published in the Jan. 6 issue of Nature Neuroscience by Mirella Dapretto, a neuroscientist at U.C.L.A., found that while many people with autism can identify an emotional expression, like sadness, on another person’s face, or imitate sad looks with their own faces, they do not feel the emotional significance of the imitated emotion. From observing other people, they do not know what it feels like to be sad, angry, disgusted or surprised.
Mirror neurons provide clues to how children learn: they kick in at birth. Dr. Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington has published studies showing that infants a few minutes old will stick out their tongues at adults doing the same thing. More than other primates, human children are hard-wired for imitation, he said, their mirror neurons involved in observing what others do and practicing doing the same things.
Still, there is one caveat, Dr. Iacoboni said. Mirror neurons work best in real life, when people are face to face. Virtual reality and videos are shadowy substitutes.
Nevertheless, a study in the January 2006 issue of Media Psychology found that when children watched violent television programs, mirror neurons, as well as several brain regions involved in aggression were activated, increasing the probability that the children would behave violently.
The ability to share the emotions of others appears to be intimately linked to the functioning of mirror neurons, said Dr. Christian Keysers, who studies the neural basis of empathy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and who has published several recent articles on the topic in Neuron.
When you see someone touched in a painful way, your own pain areas are activated, he said. When you see a spider crawl up someone’s leg, you feel a creepy sensation because your mirror neurons are firing.
People who rank high on a scale measuring empathy have particularly active mirror neurons systems, Dr. Keysers said.
Social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, embarrassment, disgust and lust are based on a uniquely human mirror neuron system found in a part of the brain called the insula, Dr. Keysers said. In a study not yet published, he found that when people watched a hand go forward to caress someone and then saw another hand push it away rudely, the insula registered the social pain of rejection. Humiliation appears to be mapped in the brain by the same mechanisms that encode real physical pain, he said.
Psychotherapists are understandably enthralled by the discovery of mirror neurons, said Dr. Daniel Siegel, the director of the Center for Human Development in Los Angeles and the author of “Parenting From the Inside Out,” because they provide a possible neurobiological basis for the psychological mechanisms known as transference and countertransference.
In transference, clients “transfer” feelings about important figures in their lives onto a therapist. Similarly, in countertransference, a therapist’s reactions to a client are shaped by the therapist’s own earlier relationships.
Therapists can use their own mirror system to understand a client’s problems and to generate empathy, he said. And they can help clients understand that many of their experiences stem from what other people have said or done to them in the past.
Art exploits mirror neurons, said Dr. Vittorio Gallese, a neuroscientist at Parma University. When you see the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s hand of divinity grasping marble, you see the hand as if it were grasping flesh, he said. Experiments show that when you read a novel, you memorize positions of objects from the narrator’s point of view.
Professional athletes and coaches, who often use mental practice and imagery, have long exploited the brain’s mirror properties perhaps without knowing their biological basis, Dr. Iacoboni said. Observation directly improves muscle performance via mirror neurons.
Similarly, millions of fans who watch their favorite sports on television are hooked by mirror neuron activation. In someone who has never played a sport – say tennis – the mirror neurons involved in running, swaying and swinging the arms will be activated, Dr. Iacoboni said.
But in someone who plays tennis, the mirror systems will be highly activated when an overhead smash is observed. Watching a game, that person will be better able to predict what will happen next, he said.
In yet another realm, mirror neurons are powerfully activated by pornography, several scientists said. For example, when a man watches another man have sexual intercourse with a woman, the observer’s mirror neurons spring into action. The vicarious thrill of watching sex, it turns out, is not so vicarious after all.
From Science Daily …
Mirror, Mirror In The Brain: Mirror Neurons, Self-Understanding And Autism Research
ScienceDaily (Nov. 7, 2007) — Recent findings are rapidly expanding researchers’ understanding of a new class of brain cells — mirror neurons — which are active both when people perform an action and when they watch it being performed.
Advances in the past few years have newly defined different types of mirror neurons in monkeys and shown how finely tuned these subsets of mirror neurons can be. New studies also have further characterized abnormal-as well as normal-mirror activity in the brains of children with the social communication disorder known as autism, suggesting new approaches to treatment.
“The tremendous excitement that has been generated in the field by the study of mirror neurons stems from the implications of the findings, which have led to numerous new hypotheses about behavior, human evolution, and neurodevelopmental disorders,” says Mahlon DeLong, MD, of Emory University School of Medicine.
Mirror neurons, a class of nerve cells in areas of the brain relaying signals for planning movement and carrying it out, were discovered 11 years ago, an offshoot of studies examining hand and mouth movements in monkeys. Mirror neuron research in the intervening years has expanded into a diverse array of fields. And the implications have been enormous, encompassing evolutionary development, theories of self and mind, and treatments for schizophrenia and stroke.
Findings being presented at Neuroscience 2007 include new research based on work in monkeys, showing that subsets of mirror neurons distinguish between observed actions carried out within hand’s reach and those beyond the animal’s personal space.
In his study, Peter Thier, PhD, at Tübingen University, first identified a group of mirror neurons by recording single nerve cell activity from electrodes when a monkey gripped different objects and when the monkey watched a person grasp the same objects, both nearby and farther away. About half of the nerve cells that were active when the monkey picked up the objects also sprung into action when it watched a person do so. Thier was assisted by research fellow Antonio Casile and PhD student Vittorio Caggiano, and worked closely with the lab of Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD, at the University of Parma.
They also noticed that some of these confirmed mirror neurons were active only when the monkey was watching activity within its personal space, defined as within reaching distance; others responded only to actions performed in a place outside the monkey’s grasp. Thier and colleagues recorded this preferential activity in 22 nerve cells, or together half of the mirror neurons. The other half of the mirror neurons showed activity that did not depend on how close the grasping action was to the monkey.
Although at this stage assigning a functional role is still speculation, Thier suggests this proximity-specific activity in mirror neurons may play an important role when we monitor what goes on around us, or serve as the basis for inferring the intentions of others and for cooperative behavior. “These neurons might encode actions of others that the observers might directly influence, or with which he or she can interact,” he says.
Other findings show that mirror neuron activity is instrumental for interpreting the facial expressions and actions of others but may not be sufficient for decoding their thoughts and intentions.
The studies examined changes in certain electroencephalograms (EEG) or brain wave patterns known as mu rhythms, which have a frequency of 8-13 hertz, or oscillations per second. Previous findings based on EEG recordings from the part of the brain that is directly involved in relaying signals for movement and sensing stimuli, known as the sensorimotor cortex, indicate that mu rhythms typically are suppressed by mirror activity in premotor areas of the brain. However, this does not happen in children with autism. As a result, the new work suggests, alternative strategies for reading faces and understanding others develop in the brains of these children.
Pursuing two parallel studies, Jaime Pineda, PhD, at the University of California, San Diego, aimed to contribute evidence supporting one of two theories about the ways we evaluate the actions and intentions of other people-either implicitly or through language-based theoretical concepts.
Using EEG recordings to examine patterns of brain wave activity, Pineda first worked with 23 adults, who were asked to look at photos showing just the eye region of people making various facial expressions. In three separate trials, the subjects were asked to identify either the emotion, race, or gender of the people in the photographs. In a subsequent task, subjects looked at three-panel cartoon strips and were asked to choose a fourth panel that completed the strip-either the conclusion of a series of physical actions or the result of a person interacting with an object. A sequence of a prisoner removing the window of his cell, then looking at his bed, for example, could be followed by a frame of the prisoner asleep, yawning, or using the bedsheet to make a rope. Answering correctly depended on interpreting the cartoon character’s intentions appropriately or understanding how physical objects interact.
Pineda repeated the studies with 28 children, 7 to 17 years old, half of whom had autism. The other half were typically developing children.
Recordings from the studies with adults showed a correlation between mu suppression, or mirror neuron activity, and accuracy for both tasks. In fact, the suppression of mu rhythms during the facial expression task also correlated with accuracy in the exercise with the cartoons, suggesting that reading people’s expressions and interpreting their intentions may draw from similar activity in the brain.
Recordings from the typically developing children showed similar patterns of suppression during the two tasks, indicating that mirror neuron activity is fully developed by age 7.
In contrast, recordings from the children with autism showed that mu rhythms were enhanced during both tasks. Enhancement is an indication that the mirror neuron system is disengaged. However, because the children still were able to perform the task, Pineda says, “we propose that children with autism develop alternative, non-mirror neuron-based coping strategies for understanding facial expressions and interpreting others’ mental states.” He suggests that “these compensatory strategies involve inhibition of residual mirror neuron functioning.”
These results could be applied to the development of treatments for autism. Pineda and his group have been using neurofeedback training to successfully renormalize functioning in this system. That is, they see mu suppression that is more characteristic of the typically developing brain following such training. “Our findings are consistent with the idea that mirror neurons are not absent in autism,” Pineda says, “but rather are abnormally responsive to stimuli and abnormally integrated into wider social-cognitive brain circuits.
“This idea implies that a retraining of mirror neurons to respond appropriately to stimuli and integrate normally into wider circuits may reduce the social symptoms of autism.”
Advances in recording brain activity also have made possible findings showing that mirror systems are active even when we are not observing an action with an eye to repeating it.
Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, PhD, at Cardiff University, found that the mirror system is activated when we watch specific actions, even when we are concentrating on a separate task.
The results are based on previous research showing that motor systems in the brain are activated when a person observes an action being performed and on interpretations suggesting that we understand and learn to imitate the actions of others through these brain mechanisms.
Working with 13 adults with an average age of 29, Muthukumaraswamy compared brain activity recorded via magnetoencephalography (MEG). This monitoring technique measures the weak magnetic fields emitted by nerve cells, and, recording from 275 locations, Muthukumaraswamy was able to monitor changes in activity every 600th of a second.
“Although MEG has been in existence for more than 20 years, recent advances in hardware, computing technology, and the algorithms used to analyze the data allow much more detailed analysis of brain function than was previously possible,” he says.
Brain activity was recorded as the subjects passively watched a sequence of finger movements, watched the movements knowing they would be asked to repeat them, added up the number of fingers moved as they watched, and performed the sequence of movements themselves.
Results from these recordings showed similar activity when the subjects performed the movement sequence and when they watched someone else do it. In addition, Muthukumaraswamy noted increased activity in areas of the brain regulating motor activity when subjects observed the movements knowing they would later do them, and when they added up the number of fingers used, compared with passive watching.
“These data suggest that activity of human mirror neuron systems is generally increased by attention relative to passive observation, even if that attention is not directed toward a specific motor activity,” says Muthukumaraswamy. “Our results suggest that the mirror system remains active regardless of any concurrent task and hence is probably an automatic system.
“A good scientific understanding of the properties of the mirror system in normal humans is important,” he adds, “because this may help to understand clinical disorders such as autism where the mirror system may not be functioning normally.”
Other findings based on EEG recordings provide the first evidence of normal mirror activity in children with autism: People familiar to children with autism may activate mirror areas of the brain in normal patterns when unfamiliar people do not.
Previous research has shown that mu rhythms are suppressed when a subject identifies with an active person being observed. Based on this work, Lindsay Oberman, PhD, at the University of California, San Diego, examined the role of two separate factors in the mirror system response of children with autism.
Six videos were shown to a group of 26 boys, 8 to 12 years old; half had autism. Three videos showed images representing varying degrees of social interaction: two bouncing balls (the baseline measurement), three people tossing a ball to themselves, and three people throwing the ball to each other and off the screen to the viewer. The other set of videos showed people with varying degrees of familiarity to the subjects: strangers opening and closing their hand, family members making the same hand movement, and the subjects themselves doing the same.
EEG recordings from 13 electrodes in a cap showed that mu activity was suppressed most when subjects watched videos of themselves, indicating the greatest mirror neuron activity. For both groups, the measurements showed a slightly lower level of suppression when subjects watched familiar people in the video and the least when watching strangers. This indicates that normal mirror neuron activity was evoked when children with autism watched family members, but not strangers.
“Thus, to say that the mirror neuron system is nonfunctional may only be partially correct,” says Oberman. “Perhaps individuals with autism have fewer mirror neurons and/or less functional mirror neurons that require a greater degree of activation than a typical child’s system in order to respond.”
The mirror neuron system may react to stimuli that the observer sees as “like me.” If this is the case, suggests Oberman, “perhaps typical individuals apply this identification to all people (both familiar and unfamiliar), resulting in activation of these areas in response to the observed stimuli, while individuals on the autism spectrum only consider familiar individuals (including themselves) as ‘like me,’ ” she says.
This evidence for normal mirror neuron activity in autistic children may indicate that mirror system dysfunction in these cases reflects an impairment in identifying with and assigning personal significance to unfamiliar people and things, Oberman suggests. Whether deficits in relating to unfamiliar people that are characteristic of autism are the cause or the result of a dysfunctional mirror neuron system is unclear.