Mirror neurons have been discovered by Italian scientists (Rizzolatti, Gallese) in 1996 while they were conducting experiments on primates.

While the primates were observing the scientists picking up stuff, researchers measured brain activity in the same area where it would be if the primates were actually performing the actions themselves. Furthermore, the activity was situated in the inferior premotor cortex, while everyone believed the processing of external stimuli could only take place in the other half of the brain. Appearantly, these neurons helps primates to understand each other.

Needless to say, scientists wanted to discover this 'mirroring' in human brains. And indeed, this behaviour (a bit more complex, though) was found in Broca's Area.

Luckily, simular to our primate friend's brain, our brain suppresses the impulses generated by mirror neurons, otherwise we would constantly imitate eachother. Experiences with demented people prove this theory.

Scientists believe mirror neurons play an important role in our communications skills, particulary in languages.

Some say a malfunctioning mirroring system could be the cause for autism.

Can Everybody Read Minds?

Ever yawn when seeing somebody else yawn? Have you ever perspired while watching a sports event on television or find yourself performing some of the same actions that the stars on the field, diamond, or ice are doing? Ever in line at a fast food restaurant and find yourself desiring and ordering the same sandwich the person in front of you orders? Maybe there's a good reason these are called "monkey see, monkey do" actions.

In 1996 Giaccamo Rizzollati and a team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma (Italy) studied macaque monkeys, a species mostly found throughout India and northeastern China that is often used for medical research. During the experiments, they came across a curious cluster of cells in the ventral premotor area of the brain's frontal lobes (an area part of the larger premotor cortex) while probing their brains. This area of the brain is primarily linked to planning and initiating movements. These odd brain cells, which seemed at first to only be tied to performing actions or watching others perform the same actions, for brain scans showed that this cell cluster fired during these events. The cells seemed to reflect the actions in the other monkeys almost like a mirror reflects one's image. They reacted the exact same way when the monkey grabbed a peanut or watched somebody else grab a peanut. It even became easy to predict which specific neurons would fire based on which specific activity the monkey was observing and processing. Because of this reflective property, Rizzollati dubbed this cluster of cells "mirror neurons."

Excited by this newly discovered cluster of cells, neuroscientists did tests to prove the existence of mirror neurons in humans. This proved to be very lucrative, as they also discovered that not only did the mirror neurons reflect actions, they were found to mirror emotions and sensations, which would give humans the ability to have empathy for others (almost like an empath like many characters depicted in science fiction and fantasy novels/movies/television shows, like Commander Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation).

"Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person's mental shoes," said Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. "In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend, we practically are in another person's mind."

Since their discovery, research has linked mirror neurons to mental disorders like autism. Since autistic people have difficulty having empathy for others around them and an inability or difficulty communicating with others, perhaps these brain cells are malfunctioning in these individuals. Mirror neurons may also help cognitive scientists develop the long sought-after Theory of Mind or ToM. This is when a child understands that others have a mind similar to their own. How ToM develops has several conceptual models. Two of the most popular are termed the "theory theory" and "simulation theory."

The "theory theory" is called such because it suggests that children form theories about people they come in contact with, about their gestures and expressions, which explain their behavior. In a sense, children in the "theory theory" become little social scientists.

Things get interesting with the "simulation theory."

This controversial theory suggests that we are all natural mind readers. It says that we try to see things and the world from another's perspective to gain an understanding of them and use our own mind as a model for theirs. Vittorio Gallese, another neuroscientist at the University of Palma, says that when we interact with somebody we do more than just observe their behavior, that we almost try to become them create internal representations of their actions, emotions, etc. within ourselves. Via internal simulations, which in theory we create with the mirror neurons, we can predict others' future behavior.

I contend that this also has to do with basic intuition, that we are the best predictors of the behavior of other human beings because we are also human beings and we are all basically the same. We just don't listen to our intuition enough. Consider this situation: a woman is carrying a heavy bag of groceries to her apartment. A total stranger - a man - comes up and offers her assistance as she tries to hold onto the groceries and fumbles with her keys to open the door. Almost immediately she gets a bad feeling about him. She says no thanks, she's got it. He insists on helping her, that he only wants to be nice. More red flags flare up in her mind. Let's say she eventually gives in, her rational mind telling her that the chances are low that he's actually dangerous and perhaps she's being silly, and lets him help her into the apartment with her groceries. Then he attacks her and rapes her. The moral of the story is that she should've listened to her intuition and often we don't give it enough credit and listen all too often to our rational mind if it conflicts with what your intuition tells you. She knew deep down that he was dangerous because if she herself ever offered to help somebody with their groceries and they refused the help that she would have walked on and only insisted if she really wanted something out of that person. She also knew that perhaps she wouldn't have offered such assistance to a total stranger in the first place if she hadn't wanted something from them.

Maybe, though, these mirror neurons are what is responsible for this intuition. And maybe what I am speaking of here is simulation theory. Gallese believes that we "share with others not only the way they normally act or subjectively experience emotions and sensations, but also the neural circuits enabling those same actions, emotions and sensations: the mirror neuron systems." In other words, Gallese seems to be saying that our mirror neurons work so well to predict others' behavior because they have the exact same mirror neurons and ability to predict your behavior (a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting a mirror...and so on). So this implies an interconnectedness within us all, giving us all the ability, sort of, to read each other's minds.

Gallese also suggests that the theory theory and simulation theory are not mutually exclusive. If the mirror neurons are damaged or defective in some way it inhibits our ability to read others' minds, or empathize, and, as I have mentioned previously, could be linked with autism. Without the simulation theory, all we have is the observe-and-guess method in the "theory theory" and this method might be the only method available to them. This retards the ability to fully understand and therefore predict the intentions and motives of others.

There are tests underway on the hypothesis that autistic people have deficient or malfunctioning mirror neurons and have what is being called "mind blindness." An autistic person is thought to only be able to predict others' behavior via analytical methods, by studying them using intense observation, only using cold hard data and not emotional empathy which only serves to predict actions and not understand motives. Hugo Theoret and colleagues at the University of Montreal showed that mirror neurons that are normally active during observation in normal people are not firing in autistic people.

And here's another idea that I thought of after posting this: maybe your ability to empathize requires the mirror neurons in both inviduals to be working properly. Is it not just as difficult for us to predict the behavior of an autistic person, at least sometimes? And here's another thing: perhaps the mirror neurons work with varying degrees of effectiveness amongst normal, non-autistic people. FBI serial killer profilers might have better mirror neurons than most, or maybe real (i.e. non-tv-cold-reading flimflam) psychics have exceptional mirror neurons.

In any event, though, the conclusion is that without these mirror neurons, the mental states of others, particularly their emotional state, are utterly inaccessible to you. You would be cut off from the rest of the world in as far as your ability to communicate and predict behavior effectively. With the communication problems the world has already, imagine what it would be like if none of us had them.

Sources:
http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=96&ncid=96&e=2&u=/space/20050427/sc_space/scientistssayeveryonecanreadminds
http://www.exzooberance.com/virtual%20zoo/they%20walk/macaque%20monkey/macaque%20monkey.htm
http://www.sciencemaster.com/wesson/brainstorms4.php

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