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Neurons in a mirror: The construction and understanding of civilization

Neurons in a mirror: The construction and understanding of civilization

May 23, 2022

Neurons in a mirror

Years ago happened by chance one of the most important discoveries in the history of neurosciences that modified our conception of brain functioning: mirror neurons. The Neurons in a mirror they participate in processes such as the learning of complex behaviors through observation (also called vicarious learning) and the understanding of the behavior of others through empathy.

Thus, the research of these neurons has become one of the fundamental pillars to understand phenomena such as the involvement of empathy in the development of social skills, the construction of cultural schemes and how it is transmitted through generations and in how Behaviors are generated based on the understanding of behavior.


Serendipity: The unexpected discovery of mirror neurons

In the year 1996, Giacomo Rizzolatti worked together with Leonardo Fogassi and Vottorio Gallese in the investigation of the functioning of motor neurons in the frontal cortex of the macaque monkey during the execution of the movement of the hands when grabbing or stacking objects. For their research, they used electrodes placed in the areas where these motor neurons are located, recording how they activated while the monkey performed a behavior such as grabbing pieces of food.

Rizzolatti remember that "when Fogassi, standing next to a fruit tree, took a banana, we noticed that some of the monkey's neurons reacted, but: how could this happen if the animal had not moved? At first we thought it was a mistake in our measurement technique or maybe a failure of the equipment, then we checked that everything worked well and that the neuron reactions occurred every time we repeated the movement, while the monkey observed it. "So, as has already happened with many other discoveries, the mirror neurons were found by chance, a Serendipity .


What are mirror neurons?

The Neurons in a mirror they are a type of neurons that are activated when executing an action and when that same action is observed executed by another individual. They are neurons highly specialized in understanding the behavior that others perform, and not only understand it from the intellectual perspective, but also allows us to connect with the emotions that manifest in the other. So much so that, in this way, we can feel completely moved by observing a beautiful love scene in a movie, such as the passionate kiss between two people.

Or, on the contrary, to feel sad when observing many of the scenes that daily news or newspapers show us about unpleasant situations that people experience, such as wars or natural disasters in regions of the world. When we see that someone suffers or feels pain, neurons in a mirror help us to read that person's facial expression and, in particular, make us feel that suffering or that pain.


The amazing thing about neurons in a mirror, is that it is an experience like simulation in the virtual reality of the action of the other person . In this way, mirror neurons are closely linked to imitation and emulation. Because to perform the imitation of another person's behavior, the brain needs to be able to adopt the perspective of that other person.

What is the importance of mirror neurons?

Knowing the functioning of this system of specialized neurons in the understanding of the behavior of others has great relevance, since it allows us to make hypotheses to investigate and understand many social and individual phenomena. And when talking about these phenomena, I not only refer to those that currently occur, but also to how the skills and abilities that we have today, such as the use of tools, were initiated and developed throughout the history of man's evolution. , the use of language and the transmission of knowledge and habits that today constitute the foundations of our cultures.

The beginning of civilization

This is where we find the contributions of the neurologist from India V. S. Ramachandrán , who defends the relevance of mirror neurons in the understanding of the beginning of civilization. To understand it, we must go back in time 75,000 years ago, one of the key moments in human evolution, where the sudden appearance and rapid extension of a series of skills took place: the use of tools, fire, shelters and , of course, language, and the ability to read what someone is thinking and interpret that person's behavior. Although the human brain had reached its current size almost 300 or 400 thousand years ago, it was not until 100,000 years ago that these abilities appeared and spread.

In this way, Ramachandran considers that 75,000 years This sophisticated system of mirror neurons emerged that allowed emulating and imitating the behavior of other people. Therefore, when a member of the group discovered something accidentally, such as the use of fire or a particular type of tool, instead of gradually disappearing, it spread rapidly, horizontally, through the population and was transmitted vertically through the generations.

In this way, we can see that human beings develop a qualitative and quantitative leap within their evolution, since through observation learning, emulation and behavior imitation, human beings can acquire behaviors that other species take thousands of years. years to develop. This is how Ramachandran illustrates the following example of how this occurs: "A polar bear will take thousands of generations (maybe 100,000 years) to develop the fur, but a human being, a child, can see that their parents They kill a polar bear, skin it and place the skin on its body, and learn it in a single step.What the polar bear took 100,000 years to learn, he learns it a few minutes.And once he learns this, it extends to geometric proportions within a population. " This is the basis for understanding how culture and civilization began and developed. The imitation of complex skills is what we call culture and is the basis of civilization.

Understanding civilization - Expanding the paradigm of science

Through this hypothesis developed by Ramachandran we can understand many of the social phenomena that occur in our cultures, as well as the realization of why we are essentially social beings. The discovery of mirror neurons opens a space to the relationship between the neurosciences and the humanities, bringing to the front issues of relevance related to leadership, human relations, culture and the transmission through generations of habits that make our culture .

Continuing to investigate mirror neurons not only allows us to expand the scientific paradigm in order to understand the culture and social phenomena, but also helps us to develop therapeutic methods within the field of psychology and psychiatry that can be more effective .

The human brain remains an unknown and involves many mysteries about how it works globally, but we are getting closer and closer to understanding the complex processes that identify human beings. Through investigations like these we can reach conclusions that travel from reductionism to a more accurate and global vision, with the aim of understanding why we are as we are and the influence of brain processes in society and how culture molds Our brain.

As he said Antonio Damassio in his book "The Discard Error ”:

"Discovering that a certain feeling depends on the activity of several specific brain systems that interact with various organs of the body does not diminish the condition of that feeling as a human phenomenon." Neither the anguish nor the exaltation that love or art can provide devalued by knowing some of the innumerable biological processes that make them as they are, it should be the other way around: our ability to marvel should increase in the face of the intricate mechanisms that make such magic possible ”.

RSA ANIMATE: The Empathic Civilisation (May 2022).


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