Monkey See, Monkey Do - Mirror Neurons

This is a must-see! As a great contrast to my previous post on a monkey eat monkey world, here is the other side: what makes us social. And what makes us social is that we learn from imitation (monkey see, monkey do), and that intersubjectivity might be the result of our projection of ourselves to our perception of others.

I have long puzzled over what exactly it is that makes human beings live vicariously through others. Why do so many beer-guzzling, fat, unathletic men get their sense of personal identity from some sports team to which they could never possibly belong? Why do so many people yell at the movie screen when something is about to happen, as if they could somehow change the outcome? Why do so many women become so emotionally invested in soap operas or romance novels when they know that what they are watching/reading is fictitious, and that no one is actually suffering or going through any kind of personal drama? Why do we love video games and porn so much?

My personal answer has always been: because we're monkeys, and not only do we look like them, we act like them too. And although I've been pretty sure this answer is correct, it's never seemed good enough since it doesn't actually explain the mechanism that would have evolved to produce these phenomena.

Actually, my real hypothesis was that there is some cognitive mechanism, which was adaptive in our ancestral environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). This mechanism would have been useful, since we were dealing with other actual beings. Modern technology, however, manages to fool this system by activating the same cognitive response with respect to two-dimensional characters on a screen. In other words, although on some abstract level we may realize that what we are watching is actually not real people, whatever mental module is being activated in our brain, below the level of conscious awareness, it gets activated because we never had the need to evolve a mechanism that would distinguish fiction from reality: back then, it was all reality. So, the mechanism is the same, but the environment has changed.

In any case, all my speculation, as correct as I believe it is, could not explain how the mechanism itself would work. But that mechanism seems to have finally been found: hello mirror neurons!

It should be noted that Darwin himself understood something of the relationship between action and feeling as a two-way street. For instance, if you force a person to imitate the muscular contractions of smiling, say, by putting a pencil across their teeth, that person is much more likely to find events funny than a person who is not so physically predisposed. That whole crappy cliche about a smile being able to make a difference turns out to be true.

I think it's also great how modern science repeatedly keeps confirming David Hume's various insights into human epistemology and phenomenology almost three hundred years after he wrote his classics. Empathy, it turns out, is just as strong a force as he thought it was.

Oh, the fascinating and awesome philosophical questions these findings raise!!!
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