The mystery of mirror neurons

The mystery of mirror neurons

The theory of mirror neurons illustrates a well-known Aristotelian observation: that man is wired, by nature, to be a social animal. Our mirror neurons fire when we act—when we are poked, or when we move a hand—but they also fire when we see others perform the same actions. The discovery of these neurons in 1996, by a team led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, and subsequent research by Vilayanur Ramachandran, among others, have spawned a clutch of practical-minded conjectures. These span a range of topics; mirror neurons are thought to lie at the heart of certain characteristics of autism, but they also help explain why pornography can be enjoyable. Ramachandran has been a charismatic roving ambassador for mirror neuron theory, expounding it most recently at a TED India workshop and at two lectures in New Delhi.

Most strikingly, mirror neuron research manages to bring together neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and sociology. These neurons engender empathy, plugging their owner into the human race at large. Yet we don’t feel pain when we watch others in pain, indicating that the human mind has a sophisticated concept of “self". Ramachandran has even postulated that around 100,000 years ago, an efflorescence of mirror neurons helped early humans watch a useful or aesthetic action and learn to repeat it. Without these neurons, culture would never have spread—and culture, Ramachandran says, is what makes us human. These are attractive hypotheses, not least because they seem to strike at fundamental questions about ourselves.

But these are all still hypotheses. Sceptics point out that we have no idea where mirror neurons live in the brain; scientists have only observed certain areas light up on imaging technology and suspected them to be knots of mirror neurons. There is also more to cognition than the ability to learn through mimicry; macaques, after all, have mirror neurons, but they have not developed for themselves an advanced culture. One psychologist has even questioned the very nomenclature, stating that the function of the neurons is to anticipate, not to mirror. The grinding lab research to confirm these theories is yet to come, and an open mind is required throughout. What will truly differentiate us from the macaques is not our awareness of our mirror neurons, but our patiently earned knowledge of precisely how important they are.

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