Neurons that care
As someone who’s strongly drawn to all things metaphysical, I’m always delighted when scientists report findings that confirm what mystics and sages have been saying for millennia. Take meditation, a foundational practice in many spiritual traditions. I just love reading about studies that prove mindfulness alters brain function and boosts wellbeing. Duh!
So I was thrilled to hear this short talk by neuroscientist Professor V.S. Ramachandran –who by the way will be presenting at Mind & Its Potential in October – in which he describes the truly amazing functions of mirror neurons. If you heard Professor Marco Iacoboni speak at last year’s Happiness & Its Causes conference, the term ‘mirror neurons’ is probably familiar to you. Iacoboni pioneered the research on mirror neurons in humans and their role in imitation, empathy, social cognition and its disorders.
Ramachandran begins by explaining that ordinary motor command neurons in the front of the brain have been known over 50 years, and that these fire when we perform a specific action, say, reach for a piece of chocolate. More recently, scientists have discovered that a subset of these neurons, about 20%, fire when we watch somebody else reach for a piece of chocolate. “It’s as though these neurons are adopting the other person’s point of view … as if they’re performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action,” says Ramachandran.
That’s not all. Just as there are these mirror neurons for action, it appears there are also mirror neurons for touch. You would expect the neurons in the sensory region of your brain to fire when someone touches you. But did you know that a subset of these neurons fire when you watch someone else being touched? And no, you don’t feel that touch sensation because receptors in your skin can tell the difference between your body and another person’s and message the brain accordingly.
But – and this is where it gets kind of freaky in a wonderful way – if your arm is anaesthetised and you watch your neighbour’s arm being touched, you too will literally feel it!
“In other words, you dissolve the barrier between you and other human beings,” says Ramachandram. “I call them ‘Gandhi neurons’ or ‘empathy neurons’. All that’s separating you from him is your skin. Remove the skin [and] you experience that person’s touch in your mind. You dissolve the barrier between you and other human beings. This, of course, is the basis of much eastern philosophy, that there’s no real independent self aloof from other human beings … you’re quite literally connected by your neurons.”
Like I said, I’m always delighted when scientists report findings that confirm what mystics and sages have been saying for millennia.