A recent paradigm-shattering discovery in neuroscience shows how our minds share actions, emotions, and experience -what we commonly call "the monkey see, monkey do" experience. When we see someone laugh, cry, show disgust, or experience pain, in some sense, we share that emotion. When we see someone in distress, we share that distress. When we see a great actor, musician or sportsperson perform at the peak of their abilities, it can feel like we are experiencing just something of what they are experiencing.
Vilayanur Ramachandran is a neurologist at the
The astonishing fact is that any given mirror neuron will also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter) performing the same action. "With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: imitation learning, intentionality, "mind reading," empathy -- even the evolution of language." Ramachandran writes.
Mirror neurons may also help explain the emergence of language, a problem that has puzzled scholars since the time of Charles Darwin, he adds.
To test his idea, Ramachandran tested four Broca's aphasia patients -- individuals with lesions in their Broca's areas. He presented them with the sound of the syllable "da," spliced to a videotape of a person whose lips were actually producing the sound "ba." Normally, people hear the "da" as "ba" -- the so-called "McGurk effect" -- because vision dominates over hearing. To his surprise, he writes, "we found that the Broca's patients did not experience this illusion; they heard the syllable correctly as 'da.' Even though their lesions were located in the left frontal region of their brains, they had a visual problem -- they ignored the lip movements. Our patients also had great difficulty with simple lip reading. This experiment provides a link between Rizzolatti's mirror neurons and the evolution of human language, and thus it calls into question the strictly modular view of language, which is currently popular."
Based on his research, Ramachandran predicted that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: "they will provide a unifying framework and possibly even explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments."