Text by Ernesto Miranda

Brief history of a discovery

The discovery of mirror neurons occurred at the beginning of the 90’s in Parma University, in Italy. The discovery involved a monkey with electrodes hooked to a machine and a man eating an ice cream (in some cases, the urban legend says it was peanuts, either way is good). The monkey’s brain feeds information into the machine so that a group of scientists can monitor the communication between the motor neurons (those related to movement) and the monkey’s limbs. That is, the computer registers and graphs information every time the monkey moves any part of his body, and one of those neurons activates.

One of the scientists enters the lab licking an ice cream. The monkey looks at him with ostensible craving. The man looks at him, looks at the monitor, looks back at the monkey and makes the discovery, the Cartesian epiphany: the monkey’s motor neurons are activated without him moving a single muscle. It’s as if the monkey was licking the ice cream. In his mind. The act of looking at an action becomes a mirror of it, it is represented in the hominid’s brain and the mirror neurons go off.

The scientist, the monkey, the ice cream: the mirror neurons, according to researcher V. S. Ramachandran, one of the most enthusiastic scientists regarding the possibilities of such neurons, will be the origin of the great scientific revolution of the 20th century, the so-called fifth revolution after Copernicus, Darwin, Freud and Crick & Watson, discoverers of DNA.

In 1992, Giacomo Rizzolati, one of the scientists from Parma, made public his research without causing much enthusiasm. Even Nature magazine denied publishing his investigation because it considered it of little general interest. However, at the beginning of this century, thanks to image studies through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it was determined that mirror neurons are also found abundantly in humans. Mainly in the parietal cortex. This new discovery redefined their possibilities completely.

As in all areas of science, and as with all discoveries that hope to cause a revolution, there are detractors that consider the arguments to prove the existence of these types of neurons insufficient and their relationship with such complex processes as: evolution, the acquisition of language, being conscious of ourselves, empathy, and the narrative function of our brain, to mention a few.

Even then, without getting into technical terms or scientific rivalry, we will speculate a bit in reference to the more spectacular and provocative aspects of these types of neurons that promise to completely change the way we understand reality.provocadores de este tipo de neuronas, que prometen cambiar por completo la forma en como entendemos la realidad.


Alter us, photographs by Toumani Camara

Understanding mirror neurons

The first thing we need to specify is that this group of neurons creates a representation, a simulation of the reality we perceive in our mind and that affects us directly, as if we were the actors of what we see. To better understand the function of these neurons and their relationship with our body, V. S. Ramachandran uses an illustrative example.

In medicine, there is a clinical phenomenon known as phantom limb, which refers to that “absent sensation” that the humans who have lost a limb feel, like losing an arm or a leg. The brain continues sending signals, but it no longer has a receptive limb. Even then, the person can “feel it,” as a kind of physical intuition or sensory habit. I suppose it must be somewhat related (remotely of course) to when our leg or arm goes numb, and somehow we feel it alien to us.

Ramachandran himself conducted an experiment where person A, a man with an amputed arm is facing person B, a man of the same age, with all of his limbs. Pain was inflicted on person B’s left arm, which person A had lost in an accident.

Another Carthesian epiphany: person A’s mirror neurons activated, making him feel pain in the left arm even though he no longer had it. Pain in his mind. This leads Ramachandran to speculate that if it wasn’t for the skin – our biggest organ -, our connection to the outside world, which bounces back or gives feedback to the neurons when they receive a stimuli from another (as if they were saying: ‘make no mistake, that other arm, that isn’t me’), we would be feeling everything, from everyone, all the time. Imagine a multitude of skinned bodies in sensory ecstasy.

Even though the image looks a bit like an Alex Grey painting, or an effort to turn scientific the much despised ‘we are all one’ expression, the mere fact of thinking we are simulating the actions we see in our brain is simply fascinating. It is highly probable that through these neurons we process other’s actions, intensions and emotions, and at the same time, communicate on a neuronal level with them, not through rational, willing, conceptual effort, but through direct physical stimuli. Feeling, not thinking.

This is why some find there is a clear relationship between mirror neurons and telepathy. It might be a long shot and too much “speculation.” However, through this unconscious communication, we can predict what will happen. For example, if we see someone make a hand movement above his shoulder, we know the person will throw a punch because, in these neurons’ memory, the image of all the times we’ve seen someone throw a punch is stored.

We know 90% of communication is non-verbal, and with this discovery, the equation changes: how much of this 90% do the mirror neurons and their memory carry out to recreate past conversations, actions and gestures at all times?

An element that increases the level of complexity in this discovery is that the mirror neurons are not only triggered by sight but also by sound. A blow, for example, or the mere mention of the world (bl-ow) triggers the mirror neurons.

You’ve surely been around someone who seems to anticipate, at all times, what one is about to say, always able to finish off our sentence or sentences. These people can totally empathize with out speech. Their mirror neurons, along with the neurons found in Broca’s area (those related to language), are able to quickly construct simulations and patterns (just as those of a kinetics activity are built), and ‘predict’ in a way, what the other will say.

Hence, mirror neurons are able to make us feel absolutely everything. There will surely be hundreds of elements that will have an impact on them. In the same way, their location will be specified since it is likely that they are found close to other types of neurons, causing double mirroring, meaning, they accompany all the cerebral processes by mirroring them.


Brief references to the possibilities it has sprung

The importance of the discovery has begun to bear surprising results, and in the following years, the ideas it is expected to shed on the human brain could greatly explain our past and future. The implications are huge: the discovery of the mirror neurons could be the equivalent to psychology as was the discovery of DNA for biology.

Firstly, it is suspected that mirror neurons have been responsible for the transmission of abilities since the times when man had yet to develop language. Since they are intricately linked with imitation or mimesis, mirror neurons are supposedly responsible for the ability to share knowledge among primitive human communities (such as building a hut, climbing a tree, etc.) without using verbal, sound or body language

In that same way, the discoveries of mirror neurons in Broca’s area make us think that their ability to reflect is also decisive when acquiring language. For example, it has been proved that a child before the age of six is capable of learning more than three different languages without a problem, through imitation and possibly, through mirror neurons.

Another useful example to understand this adaptability are the people that linguistically camouflage with their environment. Here is an example to illustrate it: a man from the Mexican central high plain, empathetic, that spends a few weeks in the north of Mexico and comes back not only using different words, but with an accent. This is a non-rational phenomenon, he doesn’t do the northern accent on purpose, it’s his mirror neurons betraying their origin.

Another benefit resulting from this discovery is that it helps to better understand ailments such as autism. It is thought that one of the causes that originates this condition is the network disengagement between these mirror neurons, which is why people who suffer this condition cannot empathize or feel what others feel. In other words, they cannot put themselves in other people’s shoes, which is why their behavior and relationship with the world is so bluntly objective.


Fiction and mirror neurons

As one would imagine, because artistic representations are closely linked to culture, the evolution of our civilization and human emotions, they also trigger mirror neurons. For example, The Pietà by Michelangelo creates an empathic reflex since it represents the death of a son. Even if we don’t have children, our mind feels the pain of a loss of someone dear to us, “pity,” empathy for the represented pain.

As I mentioned earlier, mirror neurons can be triggered by sounds or words that invoke an action. However, it has been proved that their scope or power –for obvious reasons– is stronger when they are not mediated by screens, words or metaphors.

Even so, a number of recent articles have been published in Spain, Canada and France, showing the effects that literary fiction has on the brain. In every case, the experiments show that the effect between an event that’s been read and one that’s been lived on the neurons is not very different. Likewise, it was shown that the same effects are produced when we process stories that we read, when we socialize or when we try to mingle with other people, specially when we try to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings.

This foreshadowing of what is happening in other people’s brains is what scientists call the theory of mind, which seeks to describe the processes that a person´s mind goes through to relate cerebrally to another, which goes hand in hand with the recent discoveries related to the so-called spectacular neurons.

Along with these scientific studies, other approaches have come up that raise questions of a larger scope, and although in many cases the tools needed to prove the hypothesis have not come up, they are quite relevant. For example, Aeolus Kephas’ reflections –American essayist, also known as Jason Horsley or Jason Kephas– in a recent article published in several installments and expressly written for Pijama Surf.

In it, Kephas links three very human aspects that respond to different times and circumstances: the shamanic ritual, pornography and literature. They could seem very disparate subjects but it is precisely the mirror neurons that link them.

Shamanism (or the sacred techniques of ecstasy, as Mircea Eliade called them) is essentially a ritual carried out by a man anointed to transit between this life and the next, in order to protect and cure the members of his community from any physical or metaphysical illness that could afflict them. Through chants, dancing, facial paint, and at times aided by the consumption of psychoactive substances, the shaman succeeds in healing the sick.

For Kephas, when a human being is involved in these types of rituals, the mind does not make us believe that we are being healed, it turns us into the shaman. The author’s hypothesis suggests we empathize with the mind of the shaman and we heal ourselves. Once again, mirror neurons act on us, they hack us and heal us.

Regarding pornography, Kephas and other authors suggest that when we watch it, we’re not thinking we’re having sex, we are literally having sex in our minds. Hence the addiction it produces for some and the pathological relationship others establish with this post modern simulation, to put it in Baudrillard’s terms in his book Seduction.

Thirdly, we find the question on how literature affects or triggers mirror neurons. For Kephas, writing diaries or log entries works as a reflective therapy that can individualize us. When writing a diary, we write and describe ourselves, we build an internal narrative, our personal history, we create empathy with ourselves.

Additionally, when we read a work of fiction, we enter – through the writing – the mind of the writer, a “blend of mental states, a shared trance.” Here is where we find Kephas’ more daring side because he boasts that if the writer is completely immersed in the states of his characters when writing the piece, overflown by the unconscious, in a trance, he will manage to make the reader penetrate the piece completely, and will have created a universal masterpiece.

The proof or interest necessary to prove this daring but stimulating theory has not been developed. However, we can all empirically prove the strength of characters such as Humbert Humbert and know that when reading about them, we are, in a way, entering Nabokov’s brilliant mind.

Additionally, it is common to hear in the literary workshops or in Script schools something along the lines of: “if the story’s good, it’ll walk on its own,” or “if the characters are good, they’ll speak on their own.” In addition to how practical these tips may be to construct literary pieces with universal calling, we know that when we write and devote ourselves fully to what we want to transmit, we will surely be happier with the results and maybe, with the help of mirror neurons, we could empathize with a higher number of readers.

Although there is still lacking evidence and a long way to go, I think the virtue Kephas suggests is that almost all aspects of our lives, from the most mundane to the most transcendent, can be linked to these neurons, and at some point, could be radically modified.

For a representative economy

As I mentioned earlier, it is highly probable that if it weren’t for our skin, we’d be mirroring everything that happens around us in our brain. Our head would hurt just by looking at the boy crash against a lamppost, or by watching a man set himself on fire on TV, our brain would feel the scorching heat all over our body.

Even when our skin separates us from the world, we are constantly exchanging important information without even being aware of it. We receive sensory stimuli through different mediums all the time; in every case, these stimuli are creating automatic chemical and cerebral reactions that we cannot even grasp.

Here’s a simple example, think of a concert. Maelstrom, rain, seventy thousand people, some singing, others jumping, others stimulated by psychoactive substances, kissing; we hear them all, we register everything. We see screens with ads; a woman walks by us smelling like that cream our ex girlfriend used to put on; the security guy yawns; the girl over there cries; a group of drunkards starts a fight; the lead singer of the group throws himself on the crowd. We check our Facebook, update our status, tweet…

At all times, our mirror neurons are set off and affect our nervous system as if we were literally doing all these things at once. A thousand stories were written on our neural log that will be stored in our memory. A thousand stories ready to be triggered at any minute, when someone asks us about the concert, or we hear our favorite song from that group.

That is why, hippism and romanticism aside, it is worth noticing that we are all connected in this intangible network of neural mirrors, in this microscopic collective memory, an almost infinite neural synapsis. We are all brain neurons.

Which is why it’s a good moment to think how willing we are to receive, what do we want to read, what maps or references do we want to have in our minds. It is time to think of a representative and stimulating economy, to place a filter and only consume that which illuminates the obscure cranial cavity.

Whether we like porno or 19th century European literature, or Murakami’s novels, or listening to norteño music, what’s important is to be conscious of the major implications that our inconsistent consumption of narratives and stimuli can have.

This responsibility also implies that we ask ourselves what other roads the research of mirror neurons will open to understand our reality. With music, for example, what neural pathways do certain tunes go through? What happens in our minds every time we hear songs like Hey Jude or Imagine? What happens in a stadium when seventy thousand people sing along to them?

Or through biofeedback, this new trend that allows us to get information from our body through technological devices that we use to know ourselves and, in the long run, hack ourselves.

We are not far from having an fMRI that graphs what goes on in our brain at any point in time in our homes or integrated in our augmented reality glasses or on the iPhone. Soon enough, this information will automatically be uploaded to Facebook or an app, and from there an analysis will be done of what happens in all the users’ brains, when, for example, the Mexican soccer team wins a match.

What neural path will you choose? Paranoia and conspiracy theories aside, who is the owner of our neural pathways? You, the remote, Apple TV, Genius or Youporn?

Think about it.

Meditate on it.

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