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Old 05-10-2006, 12:45 PM   #1
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Mirror neurons

Three new studies published independently last week in the journal Current Biology have yielded new insights into "mirror neurons" and point the way to two intriguing conclusions: The mirror system seems to be involved in the human capacity for language, and people with stronger mirror neuron responses to sounds seem to also have a larger capacity for empathy, suggesting the mirror system is part of the brain mechanisms that produce altruistic behavior.

Read more about this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn...092400718.html

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Christina
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Old 06-10-2006, 10:55 PM   #2
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Fascinating Christine! Do you know of any brain research on areas of the brain that appear to process either visual representations, or the symbols of written languages (i.e. not visual perception alone)?
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Old 10-10-2006, 02:35 PM   #3
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Re: mirror neurons

Hi Maulfry,

Yes, recent work at the University of Southern California suggests that the brain's premotor cortex responds to abstract representations of actions (i.e. language) as well as visual and auditory perception of an action.

The following article discusses this and other related work:
http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/200...spo nd_to.php

Fascinating...

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Old 10-10-2006, 06:02 PM   #4
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found while fishing around the lead

THIS IS AN INTRESTING PIECE

wot use is spellin

The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid. I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. Aoccdrnig to the rsceearh taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a word are, the olny iprmoatnt thing is that the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae the human mind deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arppoiately cllaed Typoglycemia. Amzanig hun? Yaeh and you awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.





Tihs is jsut one of the anazmig tnighs yuor mnid can do. Begin using The Mind Accelerator and iMusic to do even more!
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Old 10-10-2006, 11:18 PM   #5
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Thanks for the link to the SEED article - I'd read an article on this research only recently in a newspaper. Interesting stuff! Research into early infant behaviour has long identified the relationship between gesture and speech/language.
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Old 11-10-2006, 08:07 AM   #6
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More side issues More brain Phylosophy

New study shows that the brain can process and organize information, even when the body is not at rest.

by BRITT PETERSON • Posted April 4, 2006 12:38 AM

Psychologists have known for some time that during sleep the mind works like a secretary, toiling over the mass of information we take in every day, collating, organizing and storing it for future use. A study published last week in PLoS Biology shows that this kind of administrative maneuvering takes place during your waking hours as well, even as new information accumulates.
"If you acquire some information during your wakefulness, and then it is in part consolidated during sleep, then the question is, 'Where and how is the information stored during wakefulness, before sleeping?'" said Philippe Peigneux of the University of Liège in Belgium, head author of the study. "If you have to learn something now, at noon, you will also have to learn a lot of other things after that, before sleeping."

Peigneux and his team used fMRI to map brain activity at three stages of information processing. First, to get a baseline reading, they scanned their subjects as the latter carried out a basic attention task, listening to a series of repetitive tones and counting them. Following the initial scan, the study's participants spent half an hour learning one of two sequence activities: either a spatial exercise of navigating a passageway through a computer maze or a set of finger movements to test motor memory. Immediately after the learning tasks, volunteers were scanned while they performed the original counting task. After a half-hour wait, they were then scanned again, while performing the counting task again.
Studying the final two scans, the scientists found that, even though subjects were actively performing the counting task, the parts of their brains that had worked to memorize the learning tasks were still whirring away, synthesizing that material even as newer information entered the system.
"If I take the example of the spatial navigation task, it is known to activate the hippocampal area—so the hippocampus and related areas of the brain," said Peigneux. "If we compare activity just after learning, with the activity just before learning in the same counting task, there was higher activity in the hippocampus after the learning task."
Peigneux also observed that the brain absorbed different types of learning at varying speeds. As subjects performed the navigation task, activity in the hippocampal area accelerated quickly and then stabilized during the waiting period with no marked change between the second two scans. After a subject performed the motor sequence, researchers found that the activity in the basal ganglia and premotor cortex actually decreased and then increased some time later.
"There is a different temporal dynamic [involved] in the development of different types of memories," Peigneux said. "The spatial navigation task is a very different type of memory than the motor sequence learning habits that we learn."

I have pulled this artical from the Seed lead.

I find it tremendously significant from the point of view of my own
(brain phylosophy/observation)
Using Howard Gardner as a starting point, i have felt for some time that we must consider the whole brain when we are trying to discover just how we learn any thing, it also becomes daily more realisticaly clear from what i consider to be early research into brain function (todays research) that the true complexity of the human brain is light years away from being proven let alone understood.

BUT WHAT IS CLEAR IS THAT EDUCATION MUST CHANGE TO BENNIFIT FROM THIS EARLY RESEARCH

Probable facts are that by far the larger part of human inteligence lies very well hidden below the surface of the individual.

we are in the main compleaty unaware of the subconcious processing of information.

Primary education needs to be compleatly reassesed to develope brain function rather then information awareness
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Old 18-10-2006, 01:24 PM   #7
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Mirror neurons, emotional closeness, and health

"Research on the link between relationships and physical health has established that people with rich personal networks — who are married, have close family and friends, are active in social and religious groups — recover more quickly from disease and live longer. But now the emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of how people’s brains entrain as they interact, adds a missing piece to that data.

The most significant finding was the discovery of “mirror neurons,” a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person.

Mirror neurons offer a neural mechanism that explains emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed. This brain-to-brain link may also account for feelings of rapport, which research finds depend in part on extremely rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing and movements as they interact. In short, these brain cells seem to allow the interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology.

Such coordination of emotions, cardiovascular reactions or brain states between two people has been studied in mothers with their infants, marital partners arguing and even among people in meetings. Reviewing decades of such data, Lisa M. Diamond and Lisa G. Aspinwall, psychologists at the University of Utah, offer the infelicitous term “a mutually regulating psychobiological unit” to describe the merging of two discrete physiologies into a connected circuit."

Read the article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/10/he... 070&emc=eta1

This research is absolutely fascinating!

Cheers,
Christina
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Old 20-10-2006, 07:38 AM   #8
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meditaion

hi
I think the more you meditate the more mirror neurns are generated? many sainsts and sages can feel exactly what the other person is thinking...... or may percieve a farawy event......... the answer may lie in irror neaurons. let's say science just knocking at the door of mysticism again...
love
bharti
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Old 01-11-2006, 12:43 AM   #9
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Post Probably the best explanation of the value achieved in using an abacus to teach

a eurika moment

In 1996, three Italian neuroscientists, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese put an electric probe into the premotor cortex of monkeys. They discovered that inside these primate brains there were networks of cells that “store vocabularies of motor actions.” Just as there are grammars of language, rules for forming a sentence, there are grammars of movement. These populations of cells are the bodily “sentences” we use every day, the ones our brain has chosen to retain and refine.
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Old 08-11-2006, 07:17 PM   #10
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A Sum A Second using the mirror in the mind

------------ a sum a second

------------- Building neural pathways

Try this and try to do it 60 times per day it is very important

Face any child or class and with the fingers make every number at random from 1 to 10

Let the child mirror the number with their own hands and shout out the number represented

YOU ARE CREATING A TEN LANE HIGHWAY THROUGH THE BRAIN
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Old 26-04-2007, 06:19 AM   #11
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The Future



ok we are aware of this stuff but where is the joined up thinking to bennifit fron it.


Last edited by John Nicholson : 29-06-2010 at 08:58 AM.
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Old 16-07-2009, 10:42 AM   #12
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It's interesting that a scientist believe that autism can be linked to mirror neurons
because usually an autistic person is extremely repetitive. Maybe thats simply do to
routine rather than mimicking?





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Old 07-07-2011, 11:56 PM   #13
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where have we got even with this research

MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution
By V.S. Ramachandran
The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution — which I speculate on in this essay — is the single most important "unreported" (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.
There are many puzzling questions about the evolution of the human mind and brain:
1) The hominid brain reached almost its present size — and perhaps even its present intellectual capacity about 250,000 years ago . Yet many of the attributes we regard as uniquely human appeared only much later. Why? What was the brain doing during the long "incubation "period? Why did it have all this latent potential for tool use, fire, art music and perhaps even language- that blossomed only considerably later? How did these latent abilities emerge, given that natural selection can only select expressed abilities, not latent ones? I shall call this "Wallace's problem", after the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace who first proposed it.
2) Crude "Oldawan" tools — made by just a few blows to a core stone to create an irregular edge — emerged 2.4 million ago and were probably made by Homo Habilis whose brain size was half way (700cc) between modern humans (1300) and chimps (400). After another million years of evolutionary stasis aesthetically pleasing "symmetrical" tools began to appear associated with a standardization of production technique and artifact form. These required switching from a hard hammer to a soft (wooden?) hammer while the tool was being made, in order to ensure a smooth rather than jagged, irregular edge. And lastly, the invention of stereotyped "assembly line" tools (sophisticated symmetrical bifacial tools) that were hafted to a handle, took place only 200,000 years ago. Why was the evolution of the human mind "punctuated" by these relatively sudden upheavals of technological change?
3) Why the sudden explosion (often called the "great leap" ) in technological sophistication, widespread cave art, clothes, stereotyped dwellings, etc. around 40 thousand years ago, even though the brain had achieved its present "modern" size almost a million years earlier?
4) Did language appear completely out of the blue as suggested by Chomsky? Or did it evolve from a more primitive gestural language that was already in place?
5) Humans are often called the "Machiavellian Primate" referring to our ability to "read minds" in order to predict other peoples' behavior and outsmart them. Why are apes and humans so good at reading other individuals' intentions? Do higher primates have a specialized brain center or module for generating a "theory of other minds" as proposed by Nick Humphrey and Simon Baron-Cohen? If so, where is this circuit and how and when did it evolve?
The solution to many of these riddles comes from an unlikely source.. the study of single neurons in the brains of monkeys. I suggest that the questions become less puzzling when you consider Giaccamo Rizzollati's recent discovery of "mirror neurons' in the ventral premotor area of monkeys. This cluster of neurons, I argue, holds the key to understanding many enigmatic aspects of human evolution. Rizzollati and Arbib have already pointed out the relevance of their discovery to language evolution . But I believe the significance of their findings for understanding other equally important aspects of human evolution has been largely overlooked. This, in my view, is the most important unreported "story" in the last decade.
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Old 07-07-2011, 11:58 PM   #14
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THE EMERGENCE OF LANGUAGE
Unlike many other human traits such as humor, art, dancing or music the survival value of language is obvious — it helps us communicate our thoughts and intentions. But the question of how such an extraordinary ability might have actually evolved has puzzled biologists, psychologists and philosophers at least since the time of Charles Darwin. The problem is that the human vocal apparatus is vastly more sophisticated than that of any ape but without the correspondingly sophisticated language areas in the brain the vocal equipment alone would be useless. So how did these two mechanisms with so many sophisticated interlocking parts evolve in tandem? Following Darwin's lead I suggest that our vocal equipment and our remarkable ability to modulate voice evolved mainly for producing emotional calls and musical sounds during courtship ("croonin a toon."). Once that evolved then the brain — especially the left hemisphere — could evolve language.
But a bigger puzzle remains. Is language mediated by a sophisticated and highly specialized "language organ" that is unique to humans and emerged completely out of the blue as suggested by Chomsky? Or was there a more primitive gestural communication system already in place that provided a scaffolding for the emergence of vocal language?
Rizzolatti's discovery can help us solve this age-old puzzle. He recorded from the ventral premotor area of the frontal lobes of monkeys and found that certain cells will fire when a monkey performs a single, highly specific action with its hand: pulling, pushing, tugging, grasping, picking up and putting a peanut in the mouth etc. different neurons fire in response to different actions. One might be tempted to think that these are motor "command" neurons, making muscles do certain things; however, the astonishing truth is that any given mirror neuron will also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter) performing the same action, e.g. tasting a peanut! With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: "mind reading" empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language. Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to "read" and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated "theory of other minds." (I suggest, also, that a loss of these mirror neurons may explain autism — a cruel disease that afflicts children. Without these neurons the child can no longer understand or empathize with other people emotionally and therefore completely withdraws from the world socially.)
Mirror neurons can also enable you to imitate the movements of others thereby setting the stage for the complex Lamarckian or cultural inheritance that characterizes our species and liberates us from the constraints of a purely gene based evolution. Moreover, as Rizzolati has noted, these neurons may also enable you to mime — and possibly understand — the lip and tongue movements of others which, in turn, could provide the opportunity for language to evolve. (This is why, when you stick your tongue out at a new born baby it will reciprocate! How ironic and poignant that this little gesture encapsulates a half a million years of primate brain evolution.) Once you have these two abilities in place the ability to read someone's intentions and the ability to mime their vocalizations then you have set in motion the evolution of language. You need no longer speak of a unique language organ and the problem doesn't seem quite so mysterious any more.
(Another important piece of the puzzle is Rizzolatti's observation that the ventral premotor area may be a homologue of the "Broca's area" — a brain center associated with the expressive and syntactic aspects of language in humans).
These arguments do not in any way negate the idea that there are specialized brain areas for language in humans. We are dealing, here, with the question of how such areas may have evolved, not whether they exist or not.
Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys but how do we know they exist in the human brain? To find out we studied patients with a strange disorder called anosognosia. Most patients with a right hemisphere stroke have complete paralysis of the left side of their body and will complain about it, as expected. But about 5% of them will vehemently deny their paralysis even though they are mentally otherwise lucid and intelligent. This is the so called "denial" syndrome or anosognosia. To our amazement, we found that some of these patients not only denied their own paralysis, but also denied the paralysis of another patient whose inability to move his arm was clearly visible to them and to others. Denying ones one paralysis is odd enough but why would a patient deny another patient's paralysis? We suggest that this bizarre observation is best understood in terms of damage to Rizzolatti's mirror neurons. It's as if anytime you want to make a judgement about someone else's movements you have to run a VR (virtual reality) simulation of the corresponding movements in your own brain and without mirror neurons you cannot do this .
The second piece of evidence comes from studying brain waves (EEG) in humans. When people move their hands a brain wave called the MU wave gets blocked and disappears completely. Eric Altschuller, Jamie Pineda, and I suggested at the Society for Neurosciences in 1998 that this suppression was caused by Rizzolati's mirror neuron system. Consistent with this theory we found that such a suppression also occurs when a person watches someone else moving his hand but not if he watches a similar movement by an inanimate object. (We predict that children with autism should show suppression if they move their own hands but not if they watch some one else. Our lab now has preliminary hints from one highly functioning autistic child that this might be true (Social Neuroscience Abstracts 2000).
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Old 07-07-2011, 11:59 PM   #15
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THE BIG BANG OF HUMAN EVOLUTION
The hominid brain grew at an accelerating pace until it reached its present size of 1500cc about 200,000 years ago. Yet uniquely human abilities such the invention of highly sophisticated "standardized" multi- part tools, tailored clothes, art, religious belief and perhaps even language are thought to have emerged quite rapidly around 40,000 years ago — a sudden explosion of human mental abilities and culture that is sometimes called the "big bang." If the brain reached its full human potential — or at least size — 200,000 years ago why did it remain idle for 150,000 years? Most scholars are convinced that the big bang occurred because of some unknown genetic change in brain structure. For instance, the archeologist Steve Mithen has just written a book in which he claims that before the big bang there were three different brain modules in the human brain that were specialized for "social or machiavellian intelligence", for "mechanical intelligence" or tool use, and for "natural history" (a propensity to classify). These three modules remained isolated from each other but around 50,000 years ago some genetic change in the brain suddenly allowed them to communicate with each other, resulting in the enormous flexibility and versatility of human consciousness.
I disagree with Mithen ingenious suggestion and offer a very different solution to the problem. (This is not incompatible with Mithen's view but its a different idea). I suggest that the so-called big bang occurred because certain critical environmental triggers acted on a brain that had already become big for some other reason and was therefore "pre-adapted" for those cultural innovations that make us uniquely human. (One of the key pre adaptations being mirror neurons.) Inventions like tool use, art, math and even aspects of language may have been invented "accidentally" in one place and then spread very quickly given the human brain's amazing capacity for imitation learning and mind reading using mirror neurons. Perhaps ANY major "innovation" happens because of a fortuitous coincidence of environmental circumstances — usually at a single place and time. But given our species' remarkable propensity for miming, such an invention would tend to spread very quickly through the population — once it emerged.
Mirror neurons obviously cannot be the only answer to all these riddles of evolution. After all rhesus monkeys and apes have them, yet they lack the cultural sophistication of humans (although it has recently been shown that chimps at least DO have the rudiments of culture, even in the wild). I would argue, though, that mirror neurons are Necessary but not sufficient: their emergence and further development in hominids was a decisive step. The reason is that once you have a certain minimum amount of "imitation learning" and "culture" in place, this culture can, in turn, exert the selection pressure for developing those additional mental traits that make us human . And once this starts happening you have set in motion the auto-catalytic process that culminated in modern human consciousness.
A second problem with my suggestion is that it doesn't explain why the many human innovations that constitute the big bang occurred during a relatively short period. If its simply a matter of chance discoveries spreading rapidly,why would all of them have occurred at the same time? There are three answers to this objection. First,the evidence that it all took place at the same time is tenuous. The invention of music, shelters,hafted tools, tailored clothing, writing, speech, etc. may have been spread out between 100K and 5k and the so-called great leap may be a sampling artifact of archeological excavation. Second, any given innovation (e.g. speech or writing or tools) may have served as a catalyst for the others and may have therefore accelerated the pace of culture as a whole. And third, there may indeed have been a genetic change,b ut it may not have been an increase in the ability to innovate ( nor a breakdown of barriers between modules as suggested by Mithen) but an increase in the sophistication of the mirror neuron system and therefore in "learnability." The resulting increase in ability to imitate and learn (and teach) would then explain the explosion of cultural change that we call the "great leap forward" or the "big bang" in human evolution. This argument implies that the whole "nature-nurture debate" is largely meaningless as far as human are concerned. Without the genetically specified learnability that characterizes the human brain Homo sapiens wouldn't deserve the title "sapiens" (wise) but without being immersed in a culture that can take advantage of this learnability, the title would be equally inappropriate. In this sense human culture and human brain have co-evolved into obligatory mutual parasites — without either the result would not be a human being. (No more than you can have a cell without its parasitic mitochondria).
THE SECOND BIG BANG
My suggestion that these neurons provided the initial impetus for "runaway" brain/ culture co-evolution in humans, isn't quite as bizarre as it sounds. Imagine a martian anthropologist was studying human evolution a million years from now. He would be puzzled (like Wallace was) by the relatively sudden emergence of certain mental traits like sophisticated tool use, use of fire, art and "culture" and would try to correlate them (as many anthropologists now do) with purported changes in brain size and anatomy caused by mutations. But unlike them he would also be puzzled by the enormous upheavals and changes that occurred after (say) 19th century — what we call the scientific/industrial revolution. This revolution is, in many ways, much more dramatic (e.g. the sudden emergence of nuclear power, automobiles, air travel, and space travel) than the "great leap forward" that happened 40,000 years ago!!
He might be tempted to argue that there must have been a genetic change and corresponding change in brain anatomy and behavior to account for this second leap forward. (Just as many anthropologists today seek a genetic explanation for the first one.) Yet we know that present one occurred exclusively because of fortuitous environmental circumstances, because Galileo invented the "experimental method," that, together with royal patronage and the invention of the printing press, kicked off the scientific revolution. His experiments and the earlier invention of a sophisticated new language called mathematics in India in the first millennium AD (based on place value notation, zero and the decimal system), set the stage for Newtonian mechanics and the calculus and "the rest is history" as we say.
Now the thing to bear in mind is that none of this need have happened. It certainly did not happen because of a genetic change in the human brains during the renaissance. It happened at least partly because of imitation learning and rapid "cultural" transmission of knowledge. (Indeed one could almost argue that there was a greater behavioral/cognitive difference between pre-18th century and post 20th century humans than between Homo Erectus and archaic Homo Sapiens. Unless he knew better our Martian ethologist may conclude that there was a bigger genetic difference between the first two groups than the latter two species!)
Based on this analogy I suggest, further, that even the first great leap forward was made possible largely by imitation and emulation. Wallace's question was perfectly sensible; it is very puzzling how a set of extraordinary abilities seemed to emerge "out of the blue". But his solution was wrong...the apparently sudden emergence of things like art or sophisticated tools was not because of God or "divine intervention". I would argue instead that just as a single invention (or two) by Galileo and Gutenberg quickly spread and transformed the surface of the globe (although there was no preceding genetic change), inventions like fire, tailored clothes, "symmetrical tools", and art, etc. may have fortuitously emerged in a single place and then spread very quickly. Such inventions may have been made by earlier hominids too (even chimps and orangs are remarkably inventive...who knows how inventive Homo Erectus or Neandertals were) but early hominids simply may not have had an advanced enough mirror neuron system to allow a rapid transmission and dissemination of ideas. So the ideas quickly drop out of the "meme pool". This system of cells, once it became sophisticated enough to be harnessed for "training" in tool use and for reading other hominids minds, may have played the same pivotal role in the emergence of human consciousness (and replacement of Neandertals by Homo Sapiens) as the asteroid impact did in the triumph of mammals over reptiles.
So it makes no more sense to ask "Why did sophisticated tool use and art emerge only 40,000 years ago even though the brain had all the required latent ability 100,000 years earlier?" — than to ask "Why did space travel occur only a few decades ago, even though our brains were preadapted for space travel at least as far back Cro Magnons?". The question ignores the important role of contingency or plain old luck in human evolutionary history.
Thus I regard Rizzolati's discovery — and my purely speculative conjectures on their key role in our evolution — as the most important unreported story of the last decade.
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Old 08-07-2011, 12:18 AM   #16
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more function food

Monday, September 25, 2006
Whenever my editor approaches me, I quickly size up his body language before he has said a word. If he looks genial and relaxed, he probably liked my story. If his face looks set and determined, I know a wrangle over copy is probably ahead.
Human beings are exquisitely attuned to social cues and the behavior of others. Such signals tell us what is ahead and give us time to prepare. They tell us about many things that are never explicitly articulated in everyday life. Much of the time, in fact, we do not appreciate how skilled we are at reading social situations. We only realize how ingrained our ability to read social cues is when we see people with serious deficits in social awareness, such as people with autism or schizophrenia.
One of the most intriguing theories to emerge in recent years about how our brains perform these feats -- far beyond the ability of the most powerful supercomputers -- is that we have neurons in our brains that essentially act as mirrors of people around us. When we see someone scratch his head or furrow her brow, we instantly have a sense of their mental state, because those actions trigger an equivalent pattern of neural activity in our own minds and allow our brains to quickly deduce the other person's mental state.
"These mirror systems give us a fast and intuitive idea of what is going on," said neuroscientist Christian Keysers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. "If I hear a rhythmic squeak in the hotel room next door, I quite intuitively get a sense of what is going on in there without having to do much thinking. Much of our social understanding is at this level. If I see you grab a hamburger, I know you are hungry. There are so many things we intuitively understand without much thought."

This is why, Keysers added, a radio commercial can be highly evocative even though all you hear is the sound of a can being opened, a liquid being poured into a glass filled with tinkling ice cubes, followed by a contented "Ahh!" The mirror system allows us to virtually experience that soft drink as if it were in our own hands.
Three new studies published independently last week in the journal Current Biology have yielded new insights into "mirror neurons" and point the way to two intriguing conclusions: The mirror system seems to be involved in the human capacity for language, and people with stronger mirror neuron responses to sounds seem to also have a larger capacity for empathy, suggesting the mirror system is part of the brain mechanisms that produce altruistic behavior.
Keysers and his colleagues placed volunteers in fMRI scanners that monitor the activity of distinct regions of the brain and played sounds related to hand actions, such as the noise made by a piece of paper being torn or a zipper being opened. The experiment, led by Valeria Gazzola at Groningen, found that the systems of mirror neurons activated by the sounds were also active when the volunteers tore a piece of paper themselves.
"The actions of other people stop just being a sound out there in the world and acquire meaning because you associate them with your own actions," Keysers said in a telephone interview.
The experiment leads to a question that would normally seem absurd: If the same brain systems light up when a person performs an action as when she watches someone else do it, how does the person know who actually did it?
In a separate experiment focusing on this rather metaphysical question, researchers led by Simone Schuetz-Bosbach at University College London, found that mirror systems in the brain allowed people to distinguish between the actions of another person and their own. In fact, the mirror systems seem to be activated only in social contexts -- they are designed to pay attention to those around us.
"It is a very important social function," she said. "You have to understand other people in order to predict what they are going to do."
In a third experiment led by Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, who is now at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, volunteers were placed in an fMRI scanner while watching videos of hand, foot and mouth movements. Researchers observed which mirror systems responded. Next, the volunteers read descriptions of the same actions, and the researchers saw that the same systems were activated.
What this implies, said Aziz-Zadeh, is that human language may depend in part on the activation of mirror systems in the brain.
"The word 'cup' might activate the motor plan for grasping the handle for a cup," said Arthur Glenberg, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who has studied mirror neurons and wrote a commentary about the new experiments. "The word 'give' may activate the plan for stretching out the hand with the thumb touching the index finger and then opening the fingers."
This means that at least some aspects of language may be rooted in a very physical understanding of the world, the way we see and touch and feel things. It helps address a long-standing puzzle about language: How do we understand what words mean? If words are defined only by other words, what does the whole deck of cards rest on?
The new research suggests that language may depend at least in part on representations in the brain of the physical world, a much more concrete way to conceptualize language. When we hear words, we essentially act out their meanings in our own minds.
"If we empathize with other human beings because of mirror neurons rather than rules, I know what it is for you to be sad because I know what it is to be sad myself," Glenberg said. "When I see you hurt, my mirror neuron system is responding; it is giving me a sense of pain."
And by removing complex thinking from the ledges of abstraction and rooting it in the physical world, the research also helps show how the physical brain can produce the ephemera of thought. To Glenberg, it suggests that humans are far from alone in being sophisticated thinkers. Research has shown -- in some ways more convincingly than in humans -- the role of mirror neurons in other animals.
"In fact, when I started investigating these things, I became a vegetarian," Glenberg said. "It became clear to me as a consequence of these theories of embodied cognition that virtually all animals are thinking, and it is difficult to draw a line between those who are thinking and those who aren't."


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