In the 1990s, a Macaque monkey lived in a laboratory at Parma University, in Italy. Let us call him Mario. Even though Mario was a monkey, his job was to serve as a Guinea pig for a bunch of neurophysiology researchers led by Dr Giacomo Rizolatti and Dr Leonardo Fogassi. They had placed tiny electrodes in his brain, to see what happened when he reached for a banana. One day, one of the humans picked up a banana, and Mario’s neurones fired off in the same pattern, as if Mario himself had picked it up.
Giacomo and Leonardo initially thought something had gone wrong with their equipment. They repeated the experiment many times, getting the same results, finally coming to the conclusion that Mario’s neurones fired off not only when he reached for a banana, but when he saw someone else (including a human) reach for a banana. This was the birth of the “Mirror neurone” concept. Not only does the brain do a certain firing pattern whenever it performs an action, but it fires the same pattern when it observes another being doing it, acting as a “mirror” of the other’s action. The discovery was initially sent to the prestigious journal, but was rejected for its “lack of general interest”.
We live in exciting times. The last 2 decades have seen an explosion in our understanding of brain function, and hundreds of experiments, in animals and humans, have confirmed and extended mirror theory. We now know that there are mirror neurone sites not only in the motor areas (having a sense of what others are doing), but in the sensory cortex (what it feels like for other beings).
We also know that the mirror neurones link up with other (emotional) areas of the brain so that we can not only track ourselves, but also track other beings. One word for the first activity is mindfulness. One word for the second activity is empathy.
Thus for the first time in human history, we are starting to get an understanding of brain processes underpinning these two important social functions. Without empathy, we cannot nurture our babies (or anything else much). Without mindfulness, we cannot track ourselves, and act like robots.
Unless we develop our capacity for nurturance and empathy (for everything, not just our narrow social groups), social unrest, ethnic tensions, and wars of various kinds will worsen. And the environment will continue to deteriorate.
This column’s purpose is to act like a little mirror neurone, reflecting advances in the brain sciences to do with empathy, mindfulness, and nurturance, and their implication for social well-being and politics, to engage the reader’s mirror neurones and stimulate a nurturing dialogue.
Last week, I went to an amazing Neuroscience Conference at the University of Queensland’s Brain Institute. Two of the international keynote speakers were Christian Keysers and his 6 month pregnant wife Valeria, world-leading researchers in the neuroscience of empathy. What warmed my heart even more than the material presented was that both Christian and Valeria were delightfully empathic beings who obviously took their research to heart in the way they related to others. Next week’s column will report on some of the findings of the Conference, and how they might apply to our daily lives.
And finally, what of poor Mario ? My mirror neurones pained at the thought of all he had to endure in the laboratory, as did yours. And yet, my mirror neurone activities are my patterns, not Mario’s. I see the world through my “brain-glasses”, and they can distort the view. More of this later.