Archive for July 2nd, 2008

Make no mistake. 

These things were not said in this fashion and were not said in this manner in an interview between Mind Matters editor, Jonah Lehrer and neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni in American Scientist magazine.


What you have here is a reinterpretation of the article as it appeared in American Scientist magazine – with my edits and additions.  Deletions do not show up because they don’t make for a cogent flow of the main idea that I noted in 2006 when this research broke…


[or…] = Square parentheses are all JHB’s

So, here goes…


Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni discusses mirror neurons, autism and the potentially damaging effects of violent movies.

Mind Matters –  July 1, 2008

Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is best known for his work on mirror neurons, a small circuit of cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex. What makes these cells so interesting is that they are activated both when we perform a certain action—such as smiling or reaching for a cup—and when we observe someone else performing that same action. In other words, they collapse the distinction between seeing and doing. In recent years, Iacoboni has shown that mirror neurons may be an important element of social cognition and that defects in the mirror neuron system may underlie a variety of mental disorders, such as autism. His new book, Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect to Others, explores these possibilities at length. Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Iacoboni about his research.

LEHRER: What first got you interested in mirror neurons? Did you immediately grasp their explanatory potential?


I actually became interested in mirror neurons gradually. [Neuroscientist] Giacomo Rizzolatti and his group [at the University of Parma in Italy] approached us at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center because they wanted to expand the research on mirror neurons using brain imaging in humans. I thought that mirror neurons were interesting, but I have to confess I was also a bit incredulous. We were at the beginnings of the science on mirror neurons. The properties of these neurons are so amazing that I seriously considered the possibility that they were experimental artifacts. In 1998 I visited Rizzolatti’s lab in Parma, I observed their experiments and findings, talked to the anatomists that were studying the anatomy of the system and I realized that the empirical findings were really solid. At that point I had the intuition that the discovery of mirror neurons was going to revolutionize the way we think about the brain and ourselves. However, it took me some years of experimentation to fully grasp the explanatory potential of mirror neurons in imitation, empathy, language, and so on—in other words in our social life.
LEHRER: Take us inside a social interaction. How might mirror neurons help us understand what someone else is thinking or feeling?

IACOBONI: What do we do when we interact? We use our body to communicate our intentions and our feelings. The gestures, facial expressions, body postures we make are social signals, ways of communicating with one another. Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people. [One can speculate that…]

the way mirror neurons likely [operate] related to others is by providing some kind of [bridging of the relationships between some specific cues – unspecified – and sensorimotor activation where the sensory information is visual rather than muscular.   By attending to those cues] of the actions of other [organisms allows for the test organism to] “simulate” the [actions of the trainer organism.  It is presumed that with that neuromuscular activity there is a parallel emotional component or as Iacoboni refers to it] “intentions and emotions associated with those actions.” When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling [presumed to exist] fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes [whatever feelings have been conditioned to the smiling of a stranger interviewing me about an idea that not everyone could possible comprehend the way I do – smile or…] the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly [experience my form of smile that’s related to my neurons through conditioning or through parallel imitation of a different set of mirror neurons] (in a milder form, of course) [that is presumed to be like] what you are experiencing.
LEHRER: In 2006 your lab published a paper in Nature Neuroscience

linking a mirror neuron dysfunction to autism. How might reduced mirror neuron activity explain the symptoms of autism? And has there been any progress on this front since 2006?
IACOBONI: Patients with autism have hard time understanding the mental states of other people; [they also have a hard time with language and eye gaze and eye-hand coordination to mention a few other deficits;] this is why [one reason at least] social interactions are not easy for these patients. Reduced mirror neuron activity obviously weakens [lowers, reduces, impairs, inhibits, gates, blocks, etc. ] the ability of these patients to experience immediately and effortlessly what other people are experiencing, [these connections between the things going on in the environment and their uptake of what’s going on in the environment] thus making social interactions particularly difficult for these patients.


[Alternatively, the lack of the mirror neurons reduces the initial conditions or blocks the secondary conditioning that some imply exists in the actions of motor behavior and internal emotions related to that motor behavior.  These two or twenty things don’t get paired mysteriously in autistic people.  They get paired and strengthened by many pairings over time in non-autistic people.  Those pairings fit a learning paradigm of conditioning and, lacking that conditioning over time, may be the deficit that we observe in the autistic people.] Patients with autism have also often motor problems and language problems. It turns out that a deficit in mirror neurons can in principle explain also these other major symptoms [as outlined above as learning paradigms]. The motor deficits in autism [are involved] because mirror neurons are special types of premotor neurons, brain cells essential for planning and selecting actions. It has been also hypothesized that mirror neurons may be important in language evolution and language acquisition. [While people that have hearing loss at very early age show some similar speech deficits as found in some autistic people, it can be corrected by speech therapy at a later date if the loss is corrected.  It will be interesting to see if, with the ignition of related speech mirror neurons, the speech deficits of autistic people can be repaired or if there is some ‘critical period’ in development that is needed for speech development to proceed optimally.] Indeed, a human brain area that likely contains mirror neurons overlaps with a major language area, the so-called Broca’s area. Thus, a deficit in mirror neurons can in principle account for [involvement in]

three major symptoms of autism; the social, motor and language problems.
LEHRER: If we’re wired to automatically internalize the movements and mental states of others [wooo Nelly… that is a hypothetical construct that gets headlines but has not been demonstrated since ‘mental’ states are impossible to define across indiviuals and empirically…  Ok, point taken, but given it is just one-for-one as empirically demonstrated,.. ]

then what does this suggest about violent movies, television programs, video games, etcetera? Should we be more careful about what we watch?

IACOBONI: I believe we should be more careful about what we watch. This is a tricky argument; of course, because it forces us to reconsider our long cherished ideas about free will and may potentially have repercussions on free speech. There is convincing behavioral evidence linking media violence with imitative violence. Mirror neurons provide a plausible neurobiological mechanism that explains why being exposed to media violence leads to imitative violence. What should we do about it? Although it is obviously hard to have a clear and definitive answer, it is important to openly discuss this issue and hopefully reach some kind of “societal agreement” on how to limit media violence without limiting (too much) free speech. [Otherwise, we’ll have to deal with the consequences that exist and humans have excelled at doing for millions of years.]

LEHRER: Are you worried about mirror neurons getting over-sold or over-hyped?

IACOBONI: I am a bit concerned about that. The good news is, the excitement about mirror neurons reveals that people have an intuitive understanding of how neural mechanism for mirroring work. [Yes, it also reveals that we are in new areas here and that perhaps a new form of conditioning has been uncovered that makes sense biologically, environmentally and genetically.  Will it evolve and will it shed light on other things we don’t like to deal with like free will, conditioning, determinism, causality, and responsibility?  Yes, it may but that is not the primary concern of science for many scientists.  The primary concern is to find out “how things work out there.”] When told about this research, they can finally articulate what they already “knew” at some sort of pre-reflective level. However, the hype can backfire and mirror neurons may lose their specificity. I think there are two key points to keep in mind. The first one is the one we started with: mirror neurons are brain cells specialized for actions. They are obviously critical cells for social interactions but they can’t explain non-social cognition. The second point to keep in mind is that every brain cell and every neural system does not operate in a vacuum. Everything in the brain is interconnected, so that the activity of each cell reflects the dynamic interactions with other brain cells and other neural systems.


The original interview can be found @:





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If the universe (our experience, our lives, our physical reality) weren’t complex (unpredictable, undecidable) what would it be?

This is not rhetorical question.

It is not easy either.

Can you imagine an alternative?

It would be useful if we could so we can go look for evidence of the thing you imagine.  Why would we do this?  The growing research in “complexity” and “complex systems” make some assumptions based on irreducibility, computation equivalence and so forth that suggest less complex things are not capable of universal computation, and in some sense, the ability to evolve ever more interesting/complex things, like our universe.

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