Tuesday, June 13, 2006

All In Your Mind

There is a fascinating article in the April/May issue of Scientific American Mind (yeah, yeah, I know it's June now). What can be so fascinating about mirror neurons you ask? Have you ever cried while reading a book? Have you ever felt the character's anger, fear, or other emotion? Mirror neurons are at work. Scientists are just now discovering the what and why of them. Your mirror neurons fire when you observe something. So what's the big deal? From the article:

At its most basic, this finding means we mentally rehearse or imitate every action we witness, whether it is a somersault or a subtle smile. It explains how we learn to smile, talk, walk, dance or play tennis. At a deeper level, it suggests a biological dynamic for our understanding of others, the complex exchange of ideas we call culture, and psychosocial dysfunctions ranging from lack of empathy to autism. Comprehending mirror neurons helps us make sense of everything from why yawns are contagious to why, watching Lawrence Olivier fall to his knees, we share Hamlet's grief for Ophelia.
Pretty cool, huh? What is also cool is that the mirror neurons fire regardless of how you observe the action or emotion. Even if you were reading the scene from Hamlet, the same neurons would fire. When you read a book, the mirror neurons go off in the different areas of your brain as if you were doing or feeling what the character in the book is doing and feeling. Reading suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. Not long ago Dorothy read about 18th century novels and attitudes towards reading; many people believed reading was dangerous. 21st century neuroscience proves that it just might be. Read a book about a killer in which the murder is described in detail? Your brain performs the murder too even if you don't move from your chair. Read a book with a sex scene and your brain joins the party. Will the news of mirror neurons make me reconsider the books I read? I doubt it. Will people who are already afraid of books use mirror neurons as a reason for certain books to be banned? I hope not.