Mirror neurons: the construction and understanding of civilization

Years ago, one of the most important discoveries in the history of neuroscience happened by chance and changed our understanding of how the brain works: mirror neurons. the mirror neurons they participate in processes such as learning complex behaviors through observation (also called vicarious learning) and understanding the behavior of others through empathy.

Thus, research on these neurons has become one of the fundamental pillars for understanding phenomena such as the involvement of empathy in the development of social skills, the construction of cultural patterns, and how it is passed down through generations. and how behaviors are generated from understanding behavior. .

Serendipity: The unexpected discovery of mirror neurons

In 1996, Giacomo Rizzolatti worked in collaboration with Leonardo Fogassi and the Welsh voter in the study of the functioning of motor neurons in the frontal cortex of the macaque frog when performing hand movement when gripping or stacking objects. For their research, they used electrodes placed in the areas where these motor neurons are located recording how they were activated as the monkey performed behavior such as grabbing pieces of food.

Rizzolatti recalls that “when Fogassi, standing next to a fruit tree, took a banana, we notice that certain neurons of the frog reacted, but: how could this happen if the animal had not moved? At first we thought it was a mistake in our measurement technique or maybe an equipment failure, then we checked that everything was working fine and that neural reactions were occurring every time we repeated the movement, while the monkey observed ”. Thus, as with many other discoveries, mirror neurons were found by chance, a serendipity.

What are mirror neurons?

the mirror neurons These are types of neurons that are activated when an action is performed and when that same action is observed performed by another individual. They are highly specialized neurons for understanding the behavior of others, and not only understanding from an intellectual point of view, but also allowing us to connect with the emotions that manifest in the other. So much so that, in this way, one can feel completely moved while watching a beautiful love scene in a movie, like the passionate kiss between two people.

Or, on the contrary, feel sad when we observe many scenes that news programs or newspapers show us every day about unpleasant situations that people experience, such as wars or natural disasters in parts of the world. When we see someone in pain or feel pain, mirror neurons help us read that person’s facial expression and specifically make us feel that pain or pain.

What’s amazing about mirror neurons is that they are an experience as a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action.. In this way, mirror neurons are closely linked to imitation and emulation. Because in order to mimic the behavior of another person, the brain must be able to adopt that other person’s point of view.

How important are mirror neurons?

Knowing how this specialized neural system works in understanding the behavior of others is of great relevance, as it allows us to make hypotheses to investigate and understand many social and individual phenomena. And in speaking of these phenomena, I am referring not only to those that are occurring now, but also to how the abilities and skills that we have today began and developed throughout the history of human evolution, such as the use of tools, use of language and transmission of knowledge and the habits which today constitute the foundations of our cultures.

The beginning of civilization

This is where we find the contributions of the Indian neurologist VS Ramachandrán, Which defends the relevance of mirror neurons to understand the beginning of civilization. To understand this, we have to go back in time to 75,000 years ago, one of the key moments in human evolution, when the sudden appearance and rapid diffusion of a number of skills occurred: the use of tools, fire, shelter, and of course language, and the ability to read what someone is thinking and interpret that person’s behavior. Although the human brain reached its present size almost 300,000 or 400,000 years ago, just over 100,000 years ago, these abilities appeared and spread.

In this way, Ramachandran considers that he does 75,000 years This sophisticated system of mirror neurons was born, which made it possible to imitate and imitate the behavior of other people. Therefore, when a group member accidentally discovered something, such as the use of fire or a particular type of tool, instead of gradually disappearing, it spread rapidly, horizontally, through the population and transmitted vertically to through the generations.

In this way, we can see that human beings develop a qualitative and quantitative leap in their evolution, because through learning by observing, emulating and imitating behaviors, humans can acquire behaviors that d other species take thousands of years to develop. This is how Ramachandran illustrates the following example of how this happens: “A polar bear will take thousands of generations (maybe 100,000 years) to develop its fur. However, a human being, a child, can see that his parents are killing a polar bear. , peel it off and place its skin on its body, and it learns it in one step. what the polar bear took 100,000 years to learn, it learns in minutes. and once you learn it ‘it spreads to geometric proportions within a population. “It is the basis for understanding how culture and civilization started and developed. Imitation of complex skills is what we call culture and is the basis of civilization.

Understanding Civilization – Expanding the Science Paradigm

Thanks to this hypothesis developed by Ramachandran, we can understand many social phenomena that occur in our cultures, as well as understand why we are essentially social beings. The discovery of mirror neurons opens up a space for the relationship between neurosciences and the humanities, by bringing to the fore the issues of relevance linked to leadership, human relations, culture and the transmission through generations of habits that ‘they do in our culture.

Continuing research on mirror neurons not only allows us to expand the scientific paradigm in the name of understanding culture and social phenomena, but also helps us to develop therapeutic methods in the field of psychology and psychiatry that may be more effective.

The human brain remains a mystery and bears many mysteries about how it works in the world, but we come closer and closer to understanding the complex processes that identify human beings. Through such research, we can reach conclusions that range from reductionism to a more precise and holistic view, with the aim of understanding why we are as we are and the influence of brain processes on society and how culture also shapes our brains.

As he rightly said Antonio Damassio in his book “Descartes’ mistake“:

Finding out that a certain feeling depends on the activity of various specific brain systems that interact with various organs of the body does not diminish the condition of that feeling as a human phenomenon. Neither anguish nor elation than love or art can provide are devalued by knowing some of the myriad biological processes that make them as they are. It should be the other way around: our ability to marvel – should increase in the face of the complex mechanisms that make such magic possible“.

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