Mirror Neurons and the Brain in the Vat

“Six years ago, Edge published a now-famous essay by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, entitled “Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution“. This was the first time that many in the Edge community heard of mirror neurons which were discovered by Iaccomo Rizzolati of the University of Parma in 1995. In his essay, Rama made the startling prediction that mirror neurons would do for psychology what DNA did for biology by providing a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments. He further suggested “that the emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system set the stage for the emergence, in early hominids, of a number of uniquely human abilities such as proto-language (facilitated by mapping phonemes on to lip and tongue movements), empathy, ‘theory of other minds’, and the ability to ‘adopt another’s point of view’.

In the past few years, mirror neurons have come into their own as the next big thing in neuroscience, and while the jury is still out on Rama’s prediction, it’s obvious that something important is unfolding…” (The Edge)

The discovery of mirror neurons is centrally important to the understanding of the neural basis of the social brain, of empathy and interpersonal perception, as embodied in the “theory of mind” concept. Mirror neurons are crucially important to, as Ramachandran puts it,

“”what Francis Crick referred to as “the astonishing hypothesis”; the notion that “our conscious experience and sense of self is based entirely on the activity of a hundred billion bits of jelly — the neurons that constitute the brain…, that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons.””

The essay is badly edited; for example, Ramachandran is quoted as referring to mirror neurons as ‘Dalai Llama (sic) neurons’; and later refers to ‘starving pheasant’ when I am sure he intended ‘starving peasant’. Also, take a look at the vignette of the ‘brain in the vat’ Ramachandran poses at the end of the essay, and see if you don’t think it has already been better put by the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix, as the dilemma of the ‘red pill’ vs. the ‘blue pill’, such powerful shorthand that it has entered the pop-culture vernacular wholesale.