Saturday, April 27, 2013

LMAYQ: Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons really excite people. They've been hyped as the root of empathy and essential to human nature. I've addressed some of this hype, but questions remain. So for this edition of Let Me Answer Your Questions, we will focus on mirror neurons. As always, the LMAYQ series can be found here.

Escher's Mirror (source)

1. "What do mirror neurons look like?" 
Good question, and guess what? I have addressed this directly.

2. "Do mirror neurons fire when you die?"
Another good question. Ultimately, all neurons stop firing when you die including mirror neurons. But this doesn't happen immediately. In fact, if the death is due to something traumatic such as decapitation, the neurons might fire more when the nerves are severed between the spinal cord and the brain. But this just brings up questions about the moment of death. Is it when the heart stops, the head is severed? or is it when the neurons stop firing? Can a 'person' be dead when some of their cells are still alive?

In a lot of cellular-level research, cells are kept alive after the animal that they came from has died. Electrophysiologists keep slices of brain alive for hours to record electrical signals from their neurons. Still other projects involve culturing neurons that have been extracted from an animal. These neurons are carefully tended for days, weeks, and even months. These neurons not only stay alive in little dishes, but they can also grow and even control robots.

There are living neurons in there (source)
3. "what does it mean to have a mirrored brain?"
Well. nothing really. I have never heard the term 'mirrored brain' before, and it sounds like something that might be in a pseudo-scientific quiz along the lines of Are you left brained or right brained?  "Do you have a mirrored brain? take our quiz and find out"

4. "Is love nothing but mirror cells?"
I love and hate these kinds of questions. The idea that love is nothing if it can be explained by a biological mechanism really gets me. If love is just neurons firing (mirror or otherwise), so what? Why would that make LOVE any less meaningful?

Heart Mirror (source)
On the other hand, this is a really interesting question if it is asking whether mirror neurons have anything to do with love. Again mirror neurons are neurons that fire when you do something and also when you see someone else do that thing. Specifically, they were discovered in monkeys when monkeys reached for something and then saw other hands reach for something. Then the concept got hyped up. It's easy to imagine that if you have neurons that fire when you do something and when you see some one else do that same thing, that those might have something to do with 'feeling another's pain' and thus empathy. So it's not a huge step to take from there to think that maybe mirror neurons could have something to do with building relationships and love.

But the speculation here is WAY beyond the science. There isn't good solid evidence for mirror neurons controlling empathy, and certainly not for being the basis of love.

 © TheCellularScale

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