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Ramachandran on Mirror Neurons

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 Leave a Comment

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.


  • sir ian mckellan said:  

    It does beg the question of the potential impact on us of the emotional expressions of others, simulated or otherwise. Very cool. For the sake of staying out of the realm of the mumbo jumbo, we should keep in mind that this occurs because the brain has malfunctioned, and when simulating reality for itself isn't being told which body is its own. It therefore does not speak to a "cosmic oneness of us all", but rather how powerfully wired we are for empathy. Perhaps this is what the sociopath lacks. Also explains our enduring love of staged fictions, though perhaps we need a bit more evidence to ascribe healing power to them. I've wondered at the enduring popularity of played-out fictions generally, even in the middle of the malian wilderness they love their soap operas. maybe this proves its neurological basis. Sorry to rant, love it when a post makes me think! or is it watching gus think that makes me think I'm thinking? confused...

  • sir ian mckellan said:  

    sorry one more comment and I will stop. another way of looking at this research is that the only way/reason that we care for others is that on some level we mistake them for the self.

  • August Schulenburg said:  


    I agree very much that mirror neurons are a big part of why we value others - I think we'll see their presence in other socially complex animals. What Ramachandran is also arguing is that an increase in the power of these neurons some 100,000-75,000 years ago led to all of the innovations that make us distinctly human. Exciting stuff that makes me rant, too!

  • Momma Moose Diaries said:  

    Hi There
    Great blog you have here. It makes for wonderful reading!
    I have really enjoyed reading through it! Nice one!

  • Andrew Wood Acting Studio said:  

    Terrific piece. I have been reading Jeremy Rifkin's book The Empathic Civilization, and it discusses the key role that mirror neurons play in human history.

    I am convinced that an actor who achieves visceral activation, which is quite different from mere emotional responsiveness, will exhibit neurological signs that set her apart from what is registered from other actors that are neurologically monitored, and that viscerally activated actors produce a different neurological response in members of an audience than actors who are not viscerally activated. In other words, I think that when an actor truly compels her audience to engage with her, this can be measured and even quanitified. Speculation at this point, but something I hope to pursue. I think this will show that acting, at bottom, is quite different from what it is often assumed to be: that is, it is not mere imitation, but imitation-with-some-kind-of-dilation-or-transparency that makes what is not normally visible or palpable about our inner workings manifest.