Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys brains in the 90ies, and since then further research using EEG and fMRI techniques (for a brief intro see here) indicates a similar function is present also in the human brain. Mirror neurons get active not only if we perform a certain task, but also if we see somebody else performing a task. This watched action is 'mirrored' in our brain, helping us to understand and learn by looking. It's what makes the 3 year old stick a pen in his mouth and pretend to be smoking like his father, and it's what makes me go OUCH if my officemate bangs his head on the bookshelf (newcomer, beginner's mistake).

NOVA science has a very nice video on the recent research (~14 min), which searches for the origin of empathy (whoo-hoo take care with that boxes), and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran speculate it's the development of mirror neurons that was the important evolutionary step setting us apart: It's a system that allowed us to learn fast from others, an the passing on of information didn't have to be hardwired. You can read an essay about his work at EDGE:

MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution

where he calls his research 'the single most important "unreported" (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade' (not entirely sure though which decade since the website is undated). Well, we will see where it goes. But there seems no doubt that humans are, as Aristoteles called it, a 'zoon politikon', and if I look at modern cities the word TOGETHER can be read imprinted in their skyline, reaching high and higher. And if you sit there in this chair rubbing your nose I can tell I gave you something to think about.

As it is pointed out in the NOVA clip, mirror neurons are a part of our brain that simply doesn't make sense to have if we were alone. I recall an article that I read a long, long time ago in the beginning of internet when people were still surprised about the boom of this feature. You see, skeptics have been saying the internet would be a nerdy thing where a couple of people that haven't seen sunlight for a week pushed data through their network, and there are only oh-so-many people who can get excited about computers. But look at the internet today. It's not about computers, it's about people. It's about communication, it's all about together. That's why it's so successfull. Not because we care about our computer's internal life, but because we care about our inbox, and like to watch others doing stupid things captured on YouTube. Mirror, mirror, ...

And the rise of visual media has definitely boosted our sense of 'connectedness'. I am not sure whether this is an entirely good development - e.g. read Marco Iacoboni's piece on Imitative Violence, which certainly has some truth in it. But whether we like it or not, technological progress has brought the world closer together, for better or for worse. And if we share part of our consciousness through watching, then 9/11 has left a scar on our global neural network.


  1. Interesting mix. Thanks,


  2. And if we share part of our consciousness through watching, then 9/11 has left a scar on our global neural network.

    I can provide a long list of tragedies that ought to have left scars on our global consciousness but did not, primarily because it wasn't on TV or because it didn't happen to the rich and powerful.

  3. Indeed. That's what I thought as well. It's a masterly play on our perception that distorts our scale of importance, an empire that rules with pictures and words, and belittles those who suffer without CNN broadcast next to them. And didn't they do a great job raising their flag between the debris, pictures our children will see in history books, words they will remember. I just wish words could do without the sticks and stones.

  4. Well, I'm not sure that 9-11 has really had as much impact as it probably should have. And just because something happens to the "rich and powerful" doesn't make it any less tragic or disturbing.

    These mirror neurons were discovered after my educational days were done so I don't know so much about them. But last year the guy who wrote "Emotional Intelligence" published a new book called "Social Intelligence" and he implies that mirror neurons are even more powerful in personal relationships than in broader social contexts. I haven't read it, but it sounds interesting.

    I have to wonder if some might be attributing too much to one kind of neuron. If we were only ever mirroring then we'd never really learn anything new.

  5. Hi Rae Ann,

    Sure, there are different ways to learn, but watching and repeating is certainly a very efficient way and one that plays a major role. It seems to me though, there needs to be more research done before one can come to any conclusions about the importance of these mirror neurons for human evolution.

    Six years later I wonder what the impact was that the event had? Sadly enough I have the impression it has increased the gaps that the global community is developing. I can come up with a lot of understanding, but people celebrating the death of others makes me wonder what went so seriously wrong that empathy got lost and buried. Best,


  6. Dear Bee,

    thank you very much for this informative and thoughtful post - I've heard talking about mirror neurons before, but did not know what this was all about. That's really interesting, and a lot of food for thoughts - well suited to this day.

    Best, stefan

  7. Rae Ann,

    It may be silly to compare tragedies, but if 3000 is serious, then 300,000 is 100 times more serious at least. (casualties, that is). Or at least, it would be, in a sane world.

    The result of 9/11 on America has been to make it a sad and mean-spirited place.


  8. "3000", whats that compared to Dresden, Leipzig and Hamburg?". (WW2 alied bombardments) This is what I heard over and over again from people in Mek-Pomm, Germany as I lived there at the time of the WTC attacs.

    Interesting post abt mirror neurons, I hear abt for the first time.

    about the WTC, I would have expected more "bite" from you Bee..



  9. Dear Klaus,

    I've grown up being told the Americans are the bad guys, those who bombed down my relatives houses, took away what was left, made sure food was hardly enough to survive (which, as it was later confirmed, was on purpose and lead to a great many of miscarriages and death of weak and sick people), and stole our patents (so much about the American way). The US army blessed us with 'supervisors' that only left several decades later, and each time they flew maneuvers over the town my grandmother went pale and we kids had to listen (again!) to her war stories, friends who got lost, injured or died. Imagine her reaction when I told her I'd move to the states: You're going to live in enemies country?! (Ins Feindesland?). So I came here, full of prejudices.

    And then I had to realize that those on the other side of the Atlantic ocean actually think Germans have to be grateful for all of this, in may cases being blissfully unaware of the suffering they caused. Or arguing that it was a justified punishment for suffering caused by Germans.

    Now you expect more 'bite' because finally even America has experienced the terror of war on their own country? How can I not imagine the fathers and mothers who sat in that building, making a life for their families, hopes and fears shuttered down to debris, and those who will go pale each time they see a low flying airplane? Do you expect more 'bite' when I think now about those who had friends and relatives who got lost, injured or died - like my grandparents friends and relatives a long time ago. Do you expect more 'bite' to spread on that hatred which caused already so much pain throughout the history of mankind. What do you mean with 'more bite', Klaus. If you follow this blog you should know that there are a lot of things I criticise about the USA, but beneath all that divides different nations and cultures I hope it's our ability to share each others pain and happiness that can avoid the necessity for further experiences like this.




  10. Onward to Launch!
    (Dawn returning to the launch pad for the next and last try.)

    A more optimistic vision for this day, I think.

  11. "If you follow this blog you should know that there are a lot of things I criticise about the USA, but beneath all that divides different nations and cultures I hope it's our ability to share each others happiness that can avoid the necessity for further experiences like this."

    Hi Bee, that's some thought.

    The real mirror image, most of us enjoy seen the 'enemy' blown up

    There's little sympathy for the suffering of the otherside - oh but we all want people to share our suffering, or we are certainly ready to give them a taste of it.

    It sort of comes with the territory, you know shoot them up dvd games - even our national sports whether football soccer or rugby - it's all about killing or murdering the other team.

    After 9/11 there was little sympathy from the US for the wholesale destruction of a country and the death of hundreds of thousands. Incidentally a country that had little or nothing to do with 9/11. But the ignorant masses have to be appeased - Revenge is still the order of the day.

    And would the Pentagon blow up the twin towers and sacrifice 3000 US citizens for the greater good, and to justify the invasion of an Oil rich country - of course they would

    I'm not saying they did. I'm saying they are by no means above it.

    I actually like americans, but I'll not justify Vietnam or Gulf War II - Son of Bush - the sequel.

  12. sure. and should I ever meet the guy who steals the chocolate from my desk over night, he should be very very relieved I don't have a pumpgun in my drawer.

  13. Hi Bee and Stefan,

    1 - Neurophysiology has other interesting aspects in addition to mirror neurons.
    Consider: MIT on-line '9.96 Experimental Methods of Adjustable Tetrode Array Neurophysiology, January (IAP) 2001'.


    2 - As an American I cannot understand why the US public has, in recent years, looked to right wing conservatives for military opinions and decisions.
    'W' and his cronies ['Dick', 'Don', etc] demonstrated their incompetence with Iraq.

    a - In WWII, US Roosevelt and allies did not attack Franco's Spain despite a Spanish division participating in the Russian invasion. This was much stronger 'evidence' than Saddam in league with Osama.

    b - During the US civil war, conservatives were called confederates since they wanted to not only maintain but expand slavery. Yankees were liberals, especially republicans since they were in favor of slavery abolishment. This is no longer Lincoln's party since Reagan said that Jefferson Davis was one of his heroes. German immigrants generally sided with the Yankees.

    c - During the US Revolution. conservatives were called tories since they wanted to maintain the British monarchy. Liberals were called continentals since they wanted to rid themselves of British kings similar to European continental liberals. British liberals were content with a king since during the English civil war, they saw a king replaced by a dictating lord protector named Cromwell. George Washington was employed by the continental congress. Thankfully he did not seize power for himself as did Cromwell, Napoleon and Hitler.

    d - There are still good republicans like Hagel, Snow and Warner. They are few and dwindling.

  14. Dear Bee,

    Now I got the bite I missed ;-)

    tks 4 the insight.

    Aparent cynism about 911 in Germany and elsewhere does of cause not equal lack of empathy and sorrow for the immediate victims. "mirror"

    You are absolutely right; its all about being part of the solution, not part of the problem!

    BTW: there are some interesting physical aspects to consider about the castrophy itself, the fire and the collapse of the towers. Not everyone are convinced that the mere plane crash caused all of this..



  15. SH: your reply to Klaus is one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen about this question. I'm not joking. Well done.

    Thing to bear in mind about all this: Henry Ford supposedly said that "History is bunk." He was right. By this I mean: usually when people start talking history, they are trying to excuse some misbehaviour on the part of the living by referring to the deeds of the dead. Look, my ancestors were treated so badly! So I have the right to behave badly now! Otherwise how do we explain the passions over the sufferings of the long-dead? Try telling any supporter of the current Chinese regime that the behavior of China in Tibet is criminal. You will find yourself talking about the Opium wars [over 150 years ago] so fast that you will think that you have been eaten by a wormhole. And this is just one example. Moral: never trust people who get excited about history: they are trying to justify something that cannot be justified.

    PS: the Frankenwein was good indeed. I drank too much of it in order to establish this fact....

  16. Dear Bee: There are sometimes, or often, terrible stories where the roles of victims and perpetrators are not very clear at all. I would say WWII and especially Spring 1945 when the horror became unspeakable was such a story. Those events in 1945, are now understood from the perspectives of those who survived, resurrecting those who died, so it is told 'from the borders' of a common home of humanity today. As the Latvian historian named Modris Eksteins said: historical story(ies) then becomes an assemblage of fragments, memory, reflection and narrative. He said that we must accept a variety of histories, but we must also accept variety within our history. It is not possible to write history without preconception. It is possible, however, to write history with layers of suggestion, so that history evokes, history conjoins, it involves. History should provke, not dictate meaning. It should be a vehicle rather than a terminus. Beware of the terrible simplifiers, he said. I see that you are well aware of that, so thank you alot.

    One way to help invoke the empathy that is needed for understanding is to learn the meaning behind little parables/expressions from a culture and time. A Braunschweig friend told me the following, which I've never gotten out of my mind since he shared it with me 2.5 years ago. To give background, my friend is a little older than me, growing up in the 1950s as a boy in postwar east Germany. There is an expression used there that goes like this: "Oh, boy, you are completely in the bucket" and it meant that you were knocked out, severely punched, metaphorically. My friend, as a 6 or 7 year old boy, asked his mother what that could mean? Why the bucket? She did not know. One of her sisters had witnessed the most devastating air raid against the city of Braunschweig, and she once mentioned that after the raid, people were carrying their burned relatives to the cemetary in 10-litre-buckets, because they had been shrunk to a size that fit into the very water buckets that were used to extinguish the fires. But as they were phosphor bombs, the water only intensified the firestorm. Nobody believed her that a burnt adult person could fit into a ten litre bucket. When my friend read the book "Der Brand" (The fire), he found out it was true that adults were shrunk to the size to fit into a bucket and that these bodies were carried to the cemetaries in water buckets. The saying "Oh boy, you are completely in the bucket", certainly derived from that special war memory.

    My friend's stories have been an remarkable bridge to understanding and a glimpse of the long process of healing and discussion that has taken place in Germany in the last 60 years. He knows well the victims and the perpetrators. He told me that there was not a single male that could serve an example for his boyhood life, and was surrounded with the distress of the mass murderers, as he called them, but he didn't think that of them at the time, but only upon reflection 50 years later. Nowadays he tends to go ballististic with any action of the Bush Administration (I agree with him without going ballistic), mostly because he experienced first hand the results of a Total State. I'll finish with something that I think is important about 1945 from Modris Eksteins, again, who said:

    "The number of human beings who died in this conflict was staggering enough, but something else was gravely wounded: the entire Enlightenment tradition. It could not, contrary to some assertions, emerge from the war strengthened. As T.S. Eliot put it, Germany and Japan, 'these two aggressive nations, ... did but bring to a head a malady with which the world was already infected; and their collapse only leaves the world with the disease in every part of its body'. [...]

    Before we can move forward, we must come to some kind of terms with 1945, with what it represents. A start would be the recognition that 1945, with its devastation, displacement, and horror, was the result not just of a few madmen and their befuddled followers, not just of 'others,' but of humanity as a whole and of our culture as a whole. Nineteen forty-five is not our victory, as we often like to think; 1945 is our problem."

  17. Hi Klaus: You're welcome. Always willing to bite something ;-p

    Hi Who: Good to see you survived and even liked the Frankenwein. I had to notice Moselwein has a revival. Thanks for your kind words. I always disliked history at school, it seemed to be a never ending amount of names and dates. But since we, among all the mammals on that planets, have the ability to pass on knowledge in written form, witnesses of earlier times, I'd hope we could avoid repeating mistakes over and over again.

    Hi Amara: Ah, yes. "Im Eimer sein." I guess I would see history as a mosaic of a lot of small stories, and trying to find a simple pattern might go easily wrong. I am always kind of disturbed if I read essays where a historian quotes one or two letters and extends this to millions of people. Unfortunately, this kind of reasoning seems to be abundant in school books (at least those I remember).



  18. It's good to hear cultural perspective which has not been circumscribed to one part of our world.

    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.

    Let's say that "the brain" is a medium through which any soul would have to express themself.

    If "language and other things existed" before, they had to make there way through that medium, then might we not say, we would have only been limited by how we use that brain?

    I guess you would have to had assumed a philosophical position here.

    What is the evolution of the human brain, "if mind" is not leading its shape? As well as, neuronical development's.

    We are then only inhibited by what we do not know, and how to express ourselves through that medium?

    # Damasio's First Law The body precedes the mind.

    # Damasio's Second Law Emotions precede feelings.

    # Damasio's Third Law Concepts precede words.

    "The mind" in this case above precedes the body. See?:)

    See: Monkeys Adapt Robot Arm as Their Own or, Mind Over Matter: Brain Waves Guide a Cursor's Path By Rick WeissWashington Post Staff WriterMonday, December 13, 2004; Page A08

  19. Greater sympathy/empathy is one of the characteristics that are said to distinguish (most typically, anyway) liberals from conservatives. That may or may not derive from more efficient or well-tuned mirror neurons. Another lib/con distinction is that the former are more flexible in changing their minds or accepting new perspectives (in tune with an overall philosophy, of course, but for example being open to the idea of expanding the concept of marriage, etc.) Well, now we have neurological proof of the latter, by implication:


  20. Hi again,

    I was reminded:






  21. Dear Bee, did you know you have not been trained to take responsibility for your own life?

    See this which has a quote from the New York Times to that effect.

  22. Hi Arun:

    This is hilarious. Did it ever occur to them that Germans might indeed have consciously, democratically chosen their state to have a social component, and that this is exactly the way to show responsibility? I can't avoid thinking of the 6 year old claiming his mother hasn't yet learned how to throw peas with the spoon. Sorry for sounding so *ugh* German ;-)



  23. Strange to single out Germany, though. All of the European countries have social benefits (to varying extents) in their societies.

  24. Arun, the problem is that it's morally irrelevant to compare numbers of lives lost in any tragedy. This "quantization" of the value of life is wrong on all levels. The most sad and mean-spirited people I've seen are the ones who try to compare 3000 to 300000.

  25. The statement was made by one
    Reinhard Schlinkert, which sounds rather like a German name, right? So Germans too are saying these things, not just the NYT.

  26. From the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany:

    Artikel 20
    (1) Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland ist ein demokratischer und sozialer Bundesstaat.
    2) Alle Staatsgewalt geht vom Volke aus. Sie wird vom Volke in Wahlen und Abstimmungen und durch besondere Organe der Gesetzgebung, der vollziehenden Gewalt und der Rechtsprechung ausgeübt.


    1) Germany is a democratic and social federal republic.
    2) All government originates from the people. [...]

    Social democracy is not communism. We luckily don't all have the same opinion. Sure, neoliberalism has supporters in Germany. They usually say we should take the American way as a guide. Having spent some years in the USA at least I definitely don't think this is advisable when it comes to health and social insurance. I totally agree with the first part of Schlinkert's statement "[I]t’s a reality that when we ask, the majority really wants to have a socialistic way of life here in Germany" - that's the thing with democracy: the majority has a say.

    His 'interpretation' however that this state of mind is a result of insufficient 'training' is completely off. I could as well say Americans haven't been trained to take care of those in their society who are less lucky, and they haven't yet realized that capitalism (I don't know why they call it 'liberalism') isn't the right tool to appropriately take care of all goals a society might democratically agree to pursue. But you now what? As long as they don't bother the rest of the world with it, and as long as I don't have to live there, I hope they'll get happy their way. Good luck.

    However, I tend to think the only reason why this concept of 'everyone on his own' that makes so little use of a society's strengths, prevails so persistently in the USA is that a) the opinion making process is significantly influenced by wealth, which is an apparent danger to a democracy that is swept under the rug and b) that for whatever reasons most Americans (with the usual apologies, restrictions apply, there are always exceptions, etc) are absolutely convinced their way is the only right one.

    I guess one could say they have been well trained.



  27. I thought germany didnt have a constitution but a 'grundgesetz' built up by the Americans... Anyways, about mirror neurons, I dont think they are connected to imitating behavior. The baby taken the pen to her mouth isnt an example of mirror neurons, mirror neurons are more like a perception and action type of thing to understand behavior rather than imitating, although we have to be monkeys to really understand that :)


  28. Hi Garbage:

    Sorry, my fault. What's a good translation for 'Grundgesetz'? I will have to look into it more closely, but I think mirror neurons ought to be connected to learning and imitation of observed tasks. One doesn't actually have to perform and try out an action repeatedly to know what move to make. The example I've given is supposed to show an observed action can be stored and used/imitated later on. Have a look at the above mentioned article by Iacaboni:

    "The behavior of these cells seems to suggest that the observer is looking at her/his own actions reflected by a mirror, while watching somebody else's actions. My group has also shown in several studies that human mirror neuron areas are critical to imitation. There is also evidence that the activation of this neural system is fairly automatic, thus suggesting that it may by-pass conscious mediation."



  29. The most sad and mean-spirited people I've seen are the ones who try to compare 3000 to 300000.

    And that is why, Rae Ann, 1,000,000 Iraqis seems to you to be fair exchange for 9/11. At some point a calculus has to be made and it is not sad or mean-spirited to do so.

  30. A guy walks in and asks the bartender, "Isn't that Bush and Powell sitting over there?" The bartender says, "Yep, that's them." So the guy walks over and says, "Wow, this is a real honor. What are you guys doing in here?"
    Bush says, "We're planning WWIII. And the guy says, "Really? What's going to happen?"

    Bush says, "Well, we're going to kill 140 million Iraqis this time and one bicycle repairman."

    The guy exclaimed, "A bicycle repairman!!! Why kill a bicycle repairman?"

    Bush turns to Powell, punches him on the shoulder and says, "See, dummy! I told you no one would worry about the 140 million Iraqis!"


  31. However, I tend to think the only reason why this concept of 'everyone on his own' that makes so little use of a society's strengths, prevails so persistently in the USA is that ...

    If you ask Amanda Marcotte of the excellent blog Pandagon (pandagon.blogsome.com) the answer is different.

    For instance, the stubborn American resistance to universal health care in the face of piles of evidence for it makes a lot more sense if you consider the historical willingness of many white people to forgo certain benefits if there’s a chance that black people will share in those advantages.

    From here.

  32. Hmm, interesting. That's a point which hasn't crossed my mind. Will have to think about it. Thanks.

  33. Dear Bee,
    The world has some good news too.


    For the first time since record keeping began in 1960, the number of deaths of young children around the world has fallen below 10 million a year, according to figures from the United Nations Children’s Fund being released today.

    The most important advances, Unicef said, included these:

    ¶Measles deaths have dropped 60 percent since 1999, thanks to vaccination drives.

    ¶More women are breast-feeding rather than mixing formula or cereal with dirty water.

    ¶More babies are sleeping under mosquito nets.

    ¶More are getting Vitamin A drops.

    In 1960, about 20 million children died annually, but the drop since then has been steeper than 50 percent because the world population has grown. If babies were still dying at 1960 rates, 25 million would die this year.


    Despite all the moronicity, we can have a better world!


COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.