Thursday, January 12, 2006

Reading minds

Very interesting research on the functions of the brain,

Cells That Read Minds

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.

Something that affects social behavior in schools might be the watching of violent movies or the playing of a violent video game the night before a school day. This would cetainly be true of day care as well.

And I'm guessing that children who do sleep overs at a friend's house, watch rowdy video behavior, and so on may come home displaying those exact behaviors. Just guessing, but I'm betting many parents have that story to share.

But this research must also affect our understanding of homeschooling. If humans learn empathies toward others in the social stew then are sheltered children receiving a rich enough cultuaral interaction to become whole. Couple these findings with the research being done on teenaged brains and my guess is that these mirror neurons are incomplete until adulthood.

And in this melting pot of America, are we teaching racism through the apartheid of public schools? And surely, religions that teach that how you live your life is inconsequential as long as you believe may have more trouble with these findings than with evolution itself.

Interesting reading. Enjoy.

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