Our Mimetic Mind – Mirror-neurons and Theory of Other Minds

In his book Origins of the Modern Mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition (Harvard, 1991) Merlin Donald proposed that there was a distinct stage in the development of human communication marking our entrance into the symbolic world. This stage he called Mimetic Culture: 

Mimetic culture: The watershed adaptation allowing humans to function as symbolic and cultural beings was a revolutionary improvement in motor control, the “mimetic skill” required to rehearse and refine the body’s movements in a voluntary and systematic way, to remember those rehearsals, and to reproduce them on command. Following this development, Homo erectus assimilated and reconceptualized events to create various prelinguistic symbolic traditions such as rituals, dance, and craft. – from to Wikipedia

In light of the recent discovery and description of the mirror-neuron system the existence of mimetic abilities could be explained as something even deeper than the physical rehearsal of movements as Donald proposed but as the virtual rehearsal of movements.

A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially conspecific) animal. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were himself performing the action. These neurons have been observed in primates, in some birds, and in humans. In humans, they have been found in Broca’s area and the inferior parietal cortex of the brain. – from Wikipedia

It seems that Mirror neurons are the neurological mechanism underlying our ability to make representations – it is our memetic organ. I believe that this ability had to be in place before our ability to aquire and use languages could evolve. Human languages are particularly suited for telling stories. One do not need grammatical language to give warnings or even to communicate your intentions. Grammatical language is, i believe, first and foremost a means of externally representing (relating) other states than the here and now – to tell stories. It is also important to note that one do not need grammatical language to ‘tell’ stories. Stories can also be communicated through other mediums like mime, dance, and more recently also by moving pictures. This narrative ability seems to be made possible by the existance of mirror-neurons.

To want to relate a story a person must first of all have a theory-of-mind. This is the realisation that other people’s minds are filled with different knowledge and experiences than that of my own. Only then does the motivation to tell somebody else about something they might not know or to ask somebody else about something i do not know come into existence.

Recent research is suggesting that our ability to imagine other’s mental states and intentions is made possible by the existence of a mirror-neoron system within a network of neural regions that comprise the ‘social brain’: the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC), superior temporal gyrus (STG) and amygdala.

The human brain is endowed with structures that are active both during the first- and third-person experience of actions and emotions. When we witness someone else’s action, we activate a network of parietal and premotor areas that is also active while we perform similar actions. When we witness the disgusted facial expressions of someone else, we activate that part of our insula that is also active when we experience disgust. Thus, the understanding of basic aspects of social cognition depends on activation of neural structures normally involved in our own personally experienced actions or emotions. By means of this activation, a bridge is created between others and ourselves.  […]Social cognition is not only thinking about the contents of someone else’s mind (see, [21,63]). Our brains, and those of other primates, appear to have developed a basic functional mechanism, a mirror mechanism, which gives us an experiential insight into other minds. This mechanism could provide the first unifying perspective of the neural basis of social cognition.

 from the seminal paper – A unifying view of the basis of social cognition – by Vittorio Gallese, Christian Keysers, and Giacomo Rizzolatti

We humans  have the ability to emphatise with other beings’ experiences because we have the ability to simulate, re-live or mirror their experiences in our own brains. Simply put: When seeing somebody else’s pain – pain neurons within our own brain is mirrored. Because of this ability to put ourselves into somebody else’s shoes we can inver the other persons’ intentions.

Article in progress…

Some further reading:

MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution – By V.S. Ramachandran

PBS Television ande radio programmes on mirror neurons

Broken Mirrors: A Theory of Autism – By Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Lindsay M. Oberman In Scientific American

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