Mirror mirror

“When you learn a new motor skill, you see the world differently. You understand actions differently.” ~ Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (p.170)

According to Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee:

“In trying to understand human behavior, evolutionary psychologists suggest that all through the Stone Age, the human brain evolved modules for language and other uniquely human traits. Just as you have eyes for seeing and ears for hearing, the claim goes, you are born with a hardwired set of specialized brain modules for absorbing language, detecting cheaters of the social contract, calculating sexual attractiveness in others, and so on. In other words, the brain is the computational version of a Swiss Army knife.
Mirror neurons provide an alternative explanation for human brain design. Your brain is unique not because it has evolved highly specialized modules, but because it is parasitic with culture, says Ramachandran. Mirror neurons absorb culture the way a sponge sucks up water. “You can learn much more easily how to shoot an arrow or skin a bear by watching your mom and dad [do it] than by listening to them describe it,” he says.
According to Ramachandran and others, mirror neurons are a major factor in the great leap forward in human evolution one to two hundred thousand years ago, answering the question “What made Homo sapiens so darned sapient?” Unique human abilities like protolanguage (in which sounds were mapped to lip and tongue movements), empathy, theory of mind (attributing thoughts and motives to other people), and the ability to adopt another person’s point of view arguably arose at this time. Mirror neurons set the stage for the horizontal transmission of culture. As science writer Matt Ridley says, nature occurs via nurture.
Mirror neurons do not negate the fact that there are special areas for language in the human brain, Ramachandran says. But these regions do not have to be performed at the moment of birth to explain how they develop. An alternative theory holds that language areas are shaped by mirror neurons as a baby learns to speak by miming and understanding the lip and tongue movements of others. Think of a mother saying “mama” to her infant son. Mirror neurons are active when the baby sees and hears someone say “mama” and when he utters those twin syllables himself. They are the same neurons. The same brain structures that produce language participate in comprehending it. In other words, mirror neurons serve as a bridge for decoding and internalizing the meanings of other people’s actions by processing them directly within the child’s own body maps.
Language can often seem abstract and transcendent of the body, the world, and even time itself. But language is more closely tied to your body mandala than you may realize, especially where ts acquisition during childhood is concerned. If you read the verb ‘lick’, your tongue area will light up. If you hear someone say ‘kick,’ it activates your leg areas. Christian Keysers, a mirror neuron researcher at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, says that mirror neurons may very well be a key precursor to abstract thought and language. For example, he explains, you can use the word ‘break’ as a verb as in ‘I see you break the peanut, I hear you break the peanut, and I break the peanut.’ The constant is the mental simulation of breaking even though the context varies in each case. So your body is the foundational source of meaning – not just of words and actions but even the meanings of things you learn about through your eyes, ears, and bodily experience.
Newborns do not talk, but their mirror neurons kick in within minutes of birth. If you stick out your tongue at a newborn infant, he may stick his tongue back at you. Scientists take this to mean that newborns have an innate sense of a general body plan, but the only muscle they have much control over is the tongue (it is exercised in utero when the fetus sucks its thumb). Newborns cry more when they hear another newborn crying than when they hear white noise, their own cry, the cry of an older baby, or an adult faking a cry. Two-week-old infants sometimes imitate lip protrusion, mouth opening, tongue protrusion, and finger movement.
As the baby matures, his brain receives sensations of touch, proprioception, balance, and the like to build up a model of the world with itself at the center. By the time they are two, children learn quickly and primarily through imitation, which lets them absorb far more knowledge and skill than could ever possibly be explained to them verbally. They then spend years practicing what they have learned. When you realize that children have a system of neurons that is capable of learning by simply seeing, hearing, touching, then you begin to see that the world itself is the teacher, with you, as the parent, in a starring role. Your child’s mirror neurons resonate with your words, intentions, and moods. How you react to adversity or happiness is absorbed by your children through their mirror neuron system as they watch you from moment to moment.
In fact, it has been shown that the imitation instinct in human children is so strong they tend to ‘overimitate.’ Imagine an experiment in which a scientist shows a simple puzzle box to a young child. She watches with interest as the researcher performs a series of simple steps that result in the box opening and a treat being revealed. Some of these steps are mechanically necessary to get the box open, but a few of them are blatantly inessential. He resets the box and hands it to her. As you might expect, it’s monkey see, monkey do: She repeats his actions as faithfully as she can, including the ‘filler’ steps.
Now imagine that the scientist performs the same experiment with a young chimpanzee who is at a roughly comparable stage of cognitive development. The ape wants the treat. He watches and learns how the box is opened. And when he gets hold of it, he opens it in as efficient a manner as possible, omitting the inessential steps. The human child has the same basic ability to analyze and understand the box as the ape child did, but her human mirror system is a much stronger force behind her actions. It may seem counterproductive for her to be such a slavish imitator, but this is only a temporary phase while her mind is immature. Her highly developed mirror system will serve her well as she gets older. She is the one who will go on to absorb the vast array of complex skills and understandings that human culture affords.
Interesting, says Dr. Iriki, even though monkeys have mirror neurons, they don’t actually imitate each other. This may come as a shock, because we tend to imagine monkeys as the quintessential copycat mischief-makers. This isn’t to say monkeys are oblivious to each other. Far from it. They watch each other constantly. Newborns imitate lip smacking and tongue profusion. Older monkeys take cues from each other, follow each other’s examples, exploit each other’s discoveries. If one monkey sees another lift the lid of a ox and pull out a banana, she will quickly run over and take a peek inside the box herself.
You could argue that this qualifies as imitation, but that misses the point. True imitation is of the ‘aping’ variety – mimicking specific gestures that can include arbitrary action sequences. Apes and humans can learn detailed action sequences, like opening a puzzle box to extract a goodie, based on just one viewing. Monkeys can be taught complex action sequences too, but it typically takes a period of patient training in a laboratory setting. In the wild, monkeys imitate each other only at the level of the basic primate repertoire of simple grips and gestures: poking, picking, lifting, pulling, and so on. But for apes and humans, these basic actions can serve as building blocks in long, complicated, and arbitrary action sequences.
Consider a young chimpanzee who watches while an elder snaps a twig off a bush, strips it of leaves and twiglets, pokes it into a termite mound, and comes up with a highly nutritious insect kabob. The young chimp runs off into the bushes to find his own twig and attempts to replicate the same feat. That’s true imitation, and monkeys virtually never approach this level.
So if monkeys don’t use their mirror neurons for imitative learning, what do they use them for? Remember, imitation is not the only function of mirror neurons. They still give monkeys insight into each other’s goals and intentions based on action observation. Even if their mirror neurons aren’t developed enough to generate precise imitation, in the soap opera world of primate society, action understanding and intention reading are essential abilities.” (pp.171-174)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (c2007) The Body has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in your brain help you do (almost) everything better. Random House: New York

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, Parent and child and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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