Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Update on mirror neurons

I had a piece about mirror neurons here a year and a half ago. It seems to have been popular. There was a shorter piece here.

There's been a bit of recent news on the subject:

Culture Influences Brain Cells: Brain's Mirror Neurons Swayed By Ethnicity And Culture
In their study, the researchers wanted to investigate the imprint of culture on the so-called mirror neuron network. Mirror neurons fire when an individual performs an action, but they also fire when someone watches another individual perform that same action. Neuroscientists believe this "mirroring" is the neural mechanism by which we can read the minds of other people and empathize with them.

When it comes to the influence of culture, they found that indeed, the mirror neuron network responds differently depending on whether we are looking at someone who shares our culture, or someone who doesn't.

A special case of this culture specificity is language, and almost a year ago there was some research reported that linked written language with mirror neurons:

First Evidence Found of Mirror Neurons Role in Language
What do we find so gripping about a good book, the kind that makes us stay up later than we should to find out what happens to hero or heroine?

A new brain imaging study from UCLA may provide an answer, and further, shed light on the language problems common to autistic children. In a study published in the Sept. 19 issue of Current Biology, UCLA researchers show that specialized brain cells known as mirror neurons activate both when we observe the actions of others and when we simply read sentences describing the same action. When we read a book, these specialized cells respond as if we are actually doing what the book character was doing.

Another article on this research: here.

In fact, a similar relation seems to exist between spoken language and mirror neurons:

Strong Mental Link Between Actions And Words
The brain's premotor cortex shows the same activity pattern when subjects observe an action as when they hear words describing the same action, the study's authors said.

Concurrently with those reports, there were others linking mirror neurons with (non-linguistic) auditory stimuli: here, here, here.

Further research appeared this January relating (musical) sounds and mirror neurons:

New Study Shows Brain Rapidly Forms Link Between Sounds And Actions That Produce Them
The researchers taught nine subjects with no previous musical training to play a five-note, 24-second song on a keyboard. Then they ran functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while the subjects listened to the song they had just learned, a different song using the same five notes, and a third song made up of additional notes.

When the subjects listened to the familiar music, their brains showed activity in a network of areas in the frontal and parietal lobes that are involved in the control of movements. The authors note that Broca's area, the human equivalent of the area in the brain where mirror neurons were found in monkeys, was particularly active when subjects listened to music they knew how to play compared with equally familiar music they did not know how to play.

Update: Here's an article on the subject that references this note: How Your Brain Allows You to Walk in Another's Shoes.


The mind's mirror

What Do Mirror Neurons Mean?

Reflecting on Another's Mind

The Origin of Speech

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