Sunday, November 26

Brain & Mirror Neurons

Brain research has turned a new leaf recently, and is now a hotbed of meaningful research. Some people might argue if it is philosophically possible for a brain to understand itself. But frankly it is already happening. 'Introspection' is going on both in labs & in minds. Ray Kurzweil has projected at TED that we will be able to reverse engineer the brain by 2020. Being in UCSD, the mecca of biotech & neuroscience; I have had the superb opportunity to hear Dr.V.S.Ramachandran speak on his unique research, and the inflection point neuroscience is poised at. One of his most deep findings is "Mirror Neurons". Do watch a PBS documentary on the same, here.

This started from a study in Monkeys. When monkey engages in motor activity (like grabbing a banana), very specific neurons fire up in his cortex. One day accidently, instructor grabbed the banana, and lo behold! Exact same neurons fired in the monkey's brain. Thus monkey went through the 'simulated experience' just by watching somebody else do it, or his motor neurons 'mirrored' the motor neurons of person actually doing it, hence the term.

Thus mirror neurons, give us a tool to rewire mental maps by simple observation & imitation, which is the recipe for all our progress. Plus they give us a very 'real' way to put ourselves in other person's shoes, walk around, live his life, feel his happiness & his sorrows. Thus they could be the neurological basis of compassion, love, empathy which are all uniquely human qualities, which help us connect with others, and which we ascribe to the 'heart' instead of head.

Rama's feat was to understand such deep value in a novel experiment, and articulate it. He is now working on autistic children. There seems to be initial evidence that in autistic children, mirror neuron activity may be limited, leading to difficulty in social interaction, avoidance of eye contact and other phobias. I myself am, a mild sociopath, and have had age old stammer, which keeps me company at oddest occasions :-) Thus I know the loneliness of not being able to connect with others, and importance of understanding its cause.

So for the first time, the brain research is coming out of jargons, and talking about things which make real sense. Now we can look forward to answers to many many deep questions like what makes us human, what makes us different, what makes us happy/depressed/scared, what makes some of us criminals, what is morality & does it have a neural basis, where do desires come from, how to differentiate between a bad hardware (neural disorder), bad operating system (psychiatric disorder), and just an easy to fix bug.

Lets hope we use this research for good. (because I just finished watching original "Manchurian Candidate", and I am psyched at the ill-use people can put hypnosis to.)

No comments: