Friday, November 11, 2011

Neuron See, Neuron Do

You have the ability to read minds (sort of).

How, you ask?  Well, I’ll get to that later.  First, let me tell you a story.

In the early 1990s, there was a group of researchers.  They were in the process of doing a few studies on macaque monkeys to monitor their brain activity (via implanted electrodes) when they performed various motor functions.  One of these was the clutching of food.

One day, one of the researchers was busy in the lab checking the screens for the neuron activity.  He was hungry though, so he picked up the sandwich he had brought with him.  But before he could take a bite, he made an interesting discovery.  The monkeys’ neurons had fired when they had watched him pick up the food.  The same neurons that fired when they themselves picked up food.

Copyright Shift
Mirror neurons.  These little fellows are a select group of neurons that fires both when you perform an action and when you watch someone else perform the action.

Through this effect, we (and apparently monkeys) are able to feel what other people feel.  We simulate the same situation in our head if we see someone else perform an action.  But more than just the physical aspect, we feel the intention and emotional aspects as well.  Better known as empathy.

Empathy allows us to feel the same as another person.  When you see someone smile, your mirror neurons for smiling fires and you also feel the feeling that you connect to smiling, i.e. being happy.

Studies done also concluded that we can judge intentions via mirror neurons.  For example, we are able to discern between someone picking up a cup with the purpose of drinking from it and someone picking up a cup to clear the table, as opposed to just having a feeling for clutching cup.  Therefore, you can, by watching someone’s actions, get a feeling of what they’re thinking, i.e. mind reading.

As a last note, I have often observed in myself that I change into to what I am exposed to, to an extent.  For example, I’m currently reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, which is a pretty old book.  If I read it just before writing, my style, or voice if you will, changes to fit in with Shelly’s.  I find myself using old sentence structures and words that had fallen from use (i.e. I almost used the *cough*adverb*cough* gaily, which has so many other connotations these days that it is not in use in the way of happy any more).

So I’m wondering, do mirror neurons have the same effect during reading as it does during observing?  And that poses another question.  Do our mirror neurons for smiling fire when we read about someone smiling?

Perhaps, if the writer is good enough, we see the image of a smile so clearly that we are, in fact, observing it.

(Source of info and more thorough explanation here)