September 26, 2006

We are nothing but a pack of neurons

Six years ago, Edge published a now-famous essay by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran ( (known to friends and colleagues as "Rama"), entitled "Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution" [2]. This was the first time that many in the Edge community heard of mirror neurons which were discovered by Iaccomo Rizzolati of the University of Parma in 1995. In his essay, Rama made the startling prediction that mirror neurons would do for psychology what DNA did for biology by providing a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments. He further suggested "that the emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system set the stage for the emergence, in early hominids, of a number of uniquely human abilities such as proto-language (facilitated by mapping phonemes on to lip and tongue movements), empathy, 'theory of other minds', and the ability to 'adopt another's point of view'.
In the past few years, mirror neurons have come into their own as the next big thing in neuroscience, and while the jury is still out on Rama's prediction, it's obvious that something important is unfolding:
Interesting new research is being conducted in neuroscience labs in the US and Europe and discussed at conferences and in the press:
A team at UCLA led by Marco Iacoboni, Director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation laboratory of the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA recently published important results ("Grasping the Intentions of Others with One's Own Mirror Neuron System", Iacoboni et al, 2005 );
Christian Keysers, Associate Professor, Neuro-Imaging-Center of the University Medical Center Groningen (Netherlands) published a paper neural basis of social intelligence with mirror neuron pioneers Rizzolatti and Gallese ("A unifying view of the basis of social cognition" Gallese, Keysers, Rizzolatti, 2004);
The New York Times "Science Times" published a page one review article on mirror neurons by ("Cells That Read Minds" by Sandra Blakeslee, January 10, 2006);
A virtual workshop — "What do Mirror Neurons Mean" — moderated by Gloria Origgi and Dan Sperber, and sponsored by the European Science Foundation, has an ongoing discussion on the theoretical implications of the discovery of mirror neurons.
At a recent conference near Paris —"Contribution of Mirroring Processes to Human Mindreading" — on the implications of mirror neurons for science and philosophy, top neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists from Europe and the United States engaged in heated debates on the interpretation and the consequences of the discovery, but at least one thing was clear: mirror neurons matter, and we are only beginning to understand how much and how.
Two weeks ago Edge received Rama's essay in response to the 2006 Edge Question, "What is your dangerous idea", which we are publishing as a separate feature. Rama's "dangerous if true" idea is "what Francis Crick referred to as "the astonishing hypothesis"; the notion that "our conscious experience and sense of self is based entirely on the activity of a hundred billion bits of jelly — the neurons that constitute the brain. We take this for granted in these enlightened times but even so it never ceases to amaze me". He then goes on to characterize Crick's "astonishing hypothesis" as a key indicator of "the fifth revolution" — the "neuroscience revolution" — the first four being Copernican, Darwinian, Freudian, and the discovery of DNA and the genetic code.". "that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons." Central to this revolution are mirror neurons. V.S. Ramachandran 's Edge Bio Page

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