Ramachandran on Mirror Neurons
Previously on this blog we looked at VS Ramachandran's 2007 talk on mirror neurons and phantom limbs. In that post, I imagined how the mirror effects that heals phantom limb syndrome might possibly extend to harmful emotional patterns in the mind of greater complexity, and that theatre, through its use of empathy, could heal these patterns in a similar way.
Well, in November of last year, Ramachandran upped the ante on us big time. NOW, VS says that if it wasn't for our bodies telling us constantly that we are separate creatures, there would be no difference between our experience of our own actions, and the experience of watching the actions of someone else.
Here's the video - watch it.
The ideas are revolutionary enough to need excerpting here:
"So, here again you have neurons which are enrolled in empathy. Now, the question then arises: If I simply watch another person being touched, why do I not get confused and literally feel that touch sensation merely by watching somebody being touched? I mean, I empathize with that person but I don't literally feel the touch. Well, that's because you've got receptors in your skin, touch and pain receptors, going back into your brain and saying don't worry, you're not being touched...
But if you remove the arm, you simply anesthetize my arm, so you put an injection into my arm, anesthetize the brachial plexus, so the arm is numb, and there is no sensations coming in, if I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand. In other words, you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. So, I call them Gandhi neurons, or empathy neurons.
And this is not in some abstract metaphorical sense, all that's separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person's touch in your mind. You've dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this, of course is the basis of much of Eastern philosophy, And that is there is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are in fact, connected not just via Facebook, and Internet, you're actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there is whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else's consciousness.
And this is not mumbo-jumbo philosophy. It emerges from our understanding of basic neuroscience."
What theatre can do is push us to the very limits of this dissolved barrier, to feel absolutely the experience of another human being as our own, while still maintaining the skin of our individuality.