Friday, March 02, 2012

Those Darn Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons fire when an person (or animal) performs an operation or observes an operation being performed by another. It is believed that they help the brain to infer the intentions of others performing an act. Thus it may be the mirror neurons that help the brain to distinguish whether someone picking up a cup from a table is intending to drink from the cup or to clear the table.

Obviously, the brain's mirror neuron systems must have evolved, and if so they evolved over many generations in organisms facing very different environments than we do today.

How do mirror neurons work
I spent a lot of my life assuming that other people were pretty much like me. I came to realize eventually that my wife lives in a much different world than I do. Her world has more visual detail, more sounds, more and more pungent smells because her senses are so much more acute than mine. Eventually, most of us guys realize that we are mentally deficient as compared with the average woman in perceiving the motives of other people.

Check out this about Einstein's brain:
Sandra Witelson, a demure woman who has held the preserved brain of Albert Einstein in her hands and studied it for science, takes a moment to ponder whether people with larger brains are smarter. "That may be the case," the McMaster neuroscientist says cautiously. But more important than overall size is structure, or the size of specific regions -- Einstein's brain being a case in point. The brain of the man who upended 300 years of scientific tradition is of average male size, not out of line with any of the 64 other brains in Witelson's eclectic collection. But it had two unusual characteristics. One is that the parietal lobes, the grey matter just back of the ears where problem-solving and visualization occur, are about a centimetre -- or 15 per cent -- wider than a standard brain's. The other is that Einstein's Sylvian fissure, the crevice that flows through the area in the brain servicing mathematical reasoning and visualization, has a noticeably unique route along the surface, leaving these two areas much more densely packed together. "Every brain is different just like every face is different," says Witelson. "But we have never seen anything like this before."
I think I think in words, and I have no mind's eye in the sense that images are not available to my consciousness (except in dreams). Other people think in images. My father who could spell simply by recalling the image of a word that he had read and "reading off" the letters in order could never understand why I could not do the same. Yet of course, I am not conscious of most of what my brain is doing as it is thinking, so maybe a part of my brain is thinking in images.

Some people have synesthesia, such as perceiving sounds as both sounds and colors. Some people found by neurologists have really bizarre ways of perceiving and thinking now recognized as illness.

Maybe if we could see people's brains and compare them with our own, we could recognize how different we really are. But those darn mirror neurons make us assume/feel that other people are like us, that their brains work in the same way.

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