Mirror Neurons Revisited: The Theory of Mindblindness

Previously posted on Annotate
January 2006

Okay, so let’s do a quick recap. How exactly do mirror neurons work? And why do they suggest that normally functioning human beings are hard wired for empathy?

Here’s my working definition. (Those with a firmer grasp on the specifics will be sure to correct any faulty assumptions.) Mirror neurons are, in essence, physical and emotional templates that your brain starts hoarding at birth. The first time you throw a Frisbee, for instance, a few mirror neurons are requisitioned. They become the “Frisbee Throwing Templates,” encoding all the information you need to repeat the movement with relative ease. They fire when you throw the Frisbee and when you see someone else perform the same action. This type of MN is devoted to mapping physical movement. Let’s call them the Athletes.

Other MNs get charged with a more visceral task: they store information about emotional experiences related to given situations. For example, a clutch of MNs might be enlisted to store information about your first Frisbee-related trauma. They remember what you felt like that time you lobbed the Frisbee into the neighboring parking lot during that all-important Frisbee championship. When you stumble upon some unfortunate preparing to repeat this blunder, these MNs allow you to replicate her feelings of shame and humiliation. These are the Deanna Troi of mirror neurons. We’ll dub them the Empaths.

When scientists discovered the MNs formed what writer Sharon Begley calls the “neural basis of empathy,” (How Mirror Neurons Help Us) theorists made a conceptual leap. Could hypersensitive people, like artists and depressives, have a surfeit of mirror neurons, they wondered? Quite possibly, as it turns out. What, then, would someone with a deficit look like? Well, they’d probably look a lot like autistics, according to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, of Cambridge University.

Autistics suffer from what Baron-Cohen calls “mindblindness.” (Psychology Today) Many autistics are highly intelligent, but they find it close to impossible to imagine the world through another’s eyes. A study designed by Baron-Cohen demonstrates how an autistic person’s view of the world differs from yours or mine.

In 1985 . . . [Baron-Cohen]. . . presented autistic children with dolls named Sally and Anne, and the following story: Sally puts a marble in her basket and leaves the room. Anne takes the marble and hides it in her own box. Sally comes back and looks for her marble--where does she look?

A normal 4-year-old child says that Sally will look for the marble where she left it, in her basket. . . But autistic children don't get it right. They say Sally will look in Anne's box--because after all, that's where the marble really is. They have no notion, Baron-Cohen discovered, of where Sally might think the marble is. They [don’t understand that]. . . other people have thoughts and intentions that may differ from [their] own.

Baron-Cohen believes that this inability to empathize is directly related to a scarcity of mirror neurons. But, according to him, what they lack in MNs, they make up for in “systemizing ability”. This is why, Baron-Cohen posits, autistics are gifted at memorizing the stats of a baseball team’s entire roster and train schedules. Okay, this makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. But he doesn’t stop there. According to Baron-Cohen, the “essential difference between men and women . . . is that women are better at empathizing and men at systemizing.” He stresses that this is “on average” and covers himself by saying that there are “male” brains in female bodies and “female” brains in men. Still, according to him, Autism can be most easily understood as “extreme male brain.” He and his team are currently conducting studies to determine if Autism is related to the amount of testosterone a fetus is exposed to during the first trimester of pregnancy, “a critical time for brain development.”

This is a fascinating, albeit politically charged, theory. But it leaves me with some unanswered questions. For instance, Baron-Cohen seems to subscribe to his colleague Uta Frith’s thesis that autistics have an “inability to draw together information so as to derive coherent and meaningful ideas.” (Psychology Today) This explains, according to Frith, why austics can memorize “strings of nonsense words” and “do jigsaw puzzles without the picture.” Huh?

But isn’t “systematizing” all about building a coherent framework to explain the relationship between disparate facts? Does storing up numerical sequences and committing Pig Latin to memory really qualify as “systematizing?” It seems more like rote memorization to me.

As elegant as Baron-Cohen theory is, I also think there’s a hole in it. Okay, a deficit of MNs might explain an autistic’s failure to empathize. But don’t mirror neurons do a great deal more than empathize? What about the Athletes? If an autistic person lacked the necessary number of mirror neurons, wouldn’t they have trouble performing the most basic physical movements?

From my limited reading, I gather that MNs don’t start out specialized. You aren’t born with “X” number of Athletes and “Y” number of Empaths. Mirror neurons are allocated for certain tasks, but, in the beginning, the template is blank. So what gives?

Am I missing something here? Anyone more scientifically adept care to address these questions?

Psychic Cells

Previously posted on Annotate
January 2006

The New York Times (Cells That Read Minds) and The Wall Street Journal (How Mirror Neurons Help Us to Empathize) published a couple of articles at the beginning of this month about mirror neurons. Now, I don’t generally scour the paper for breaking news on neurons, but I started scanning the Times article and found myself completely riveted.

Here’s why you should care about mirror neurons even if your working knowledge of neuroscience is dwarfed by your grasp of, say, Project Runway trivia.

The Strange and Mystical World of Mirror Neurons may help to explain:

*The biological foundation of empathy
*Why woman are typically more empathetic than men
*What causes Autism

These are three of the questions scientists are exploring based on the discovery of mirror neurons. Interested yet? I was. Here is the cocktail party version of the discovery of mirror neurons.

In the summer of 1990, a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Parma wandered into his lab to check on his monkey. The monkey had a set of wires implanted in the ventral premotor area of its brain--the part of the frontal lobe understood to control movement. (For more info see: Everything2) The implants allowed researchers to monitor brain activity every time the monkey moved. It being a hot day, the grad student had gone and fetched himself an ice cream cone. He stood licking away at it as he surveyed the monkey. Then, something strange happened. A monitor, rigged to emit a sound whenever the monkey moved, started chirping every time the student brought the ice cream cone to his mouth.

Apparently, this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Researchers had noted similar activity when a monkey watched people and fellow test subjects eating everything from peanuts, to raisins, and—-well, err—bananas. Despite repeated incidents like this one, it took the researchers a while to conquer their disbelief, according to Blakeslee’s article, "Cells That Read Minds." Once they mastered their incredulity, however, they soon discovered that monkeys have a specialized group of cells, which fire every time the animal performs an action and--more startlingly, when it sees or hears someone else performing the same action.

Okay, you say, but that was 16 years ago. Why are we hearing about this now? Well, recently, scientists have discovered that humans also have mirror neurons. Our mirror neurons (somewhat predictably) are a more advanced than monkeys. And the discovery of this highly attuned group of cells, Blakeslee says, ”is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, autism and psychotherapy." So, what makes mirror neurons so special? According to Blakeslee:

Most nerve cells in the brain are comparatively pedestrian. Many specialize in detecting ordinary features of the outside world . . . 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 . . . Mirror neurons make these complex cells look like numbskulls. Found in several areas of the brain . . . 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."

So, what exactly does all of this mean? This quote from UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Marco Iacoboni brings things sharply into focus:

"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 . . . 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."
(From Cells That Read Minds)

So, mirror neurons are, essentially, psychic cells that allow you to anticipate the actions of others and mimic their emotions. Do you have the shivers yet?


Android Science

Previously posted on Annotate
April 2006

I’m sure someone has come up with an elaborate theory to explain why
Blade Runner had such a profound impact on GenXers, but I’ve yet to read it. All I know is that ever since I watched Daryl Hannah doing somersaults in that black leotard, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of androids.

The slow progress of robotics engineering has long been a source of frustration to me. Sure, Sony’s
Aibo robot dogs are cute, but they’re hardly lifelike. I mean, come on--even Teddy Ruxpin had fur. Consequently, I was dubious about reports that Hiroshi Ishiguro, Director of Osaka University's Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, had finally created a convincing human analog. Then, I saw pictures of Repliee Q1expo.

Okay, she’s no Daryl Hannah, but she’s pretty darn impressive. According to Tim Hornyak of Scientific American, who saw the robot live "in person" at the 2005 World Exposition:

[Repliee] had moist lips, glossy hair and vivid eyes that blinked slowly. Seated on a stool with hands folded primly on [her] lap . . . for a mesmerizing few seconds from several meters away, Repliee Q1expo was virtually indistinguishable from an ordinary woman in her 30s.
Android Science)
Ishiguro’s android is a benchmark in robotics engineering. She reacts to human touch, responds when spoken to, and records movements and environmental stimuli using tiny video cameras. So, how did he manage to make her so real?

Well, first he modeled his robot on an actual person: Japanese newscaster
Ayako Fujii. (Scroll down for compare and contrast shot.) Ishiguro studied Fujii’s physique and mannerisms, built a metal replica of her skeleton, and used pigmented silicone skin, makeup, and a wig to complete the effect.

The second, and more compelling, reason Repliee is so convincing is that Ishiguro used insights garnered from neuroscience and psychology to design his robot. "To make the android humanlike, we [investigated] human activity from the standpoint of cognitive science, behavioral science and neuroscience [and implemented] processes that support it in the android," he explained in a 2005 paper.

Unfortunately, Scientific American doesn’t go into great detail about the methods Ishiguro used to achieve his results. But the neuropsychological community appears duly impressed. Cognitive scientists are currently using Repliee as a "test bed to study human perception, communication and other faculties." This unprecedented cross-fertilization of robotics and psychology has been dubbed "android science." Contemplating the potential of such a discipline is enough to make the mind boggle.