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V. S. Ramachandran - Mirror Neurons

V. S. Ramachandran - Mirror Neurons

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Published by Michael Mohamed

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Published by: Michael Mohamed on Nov 17, 2008
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06/21/2010

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MIRROR NEURONS AND THE BRAIN IN THE VAT"I am a brain, my dear Watson, and the rest of me is a mereappendage." — Sherlock HolmesAn idea that would be "dangerous if true" is what Francis Crickreferred to as "the astonishing hypothesis"; the notion that our conscious experience and sense of self is based entirely on theactivity of a hundred billion bits of jelly — the neurons that constitutethe brain. We take this for granted in these enlightened times buteven so it never ceases to amaze me.Some scholars have criticized Crick's tongue-in-cheek phrase (andtitle of his book) on the grounds that the hypothesis he refers to is"neither astonishing nor a hypothesis". (Since we already know it tobe true) Yet the far-reaching philosophical, moral and ethicaldilemmas posed by his hypothesis have not been recognized widelyenough. It is in many ways the ultimate dangerous idea.Let's put this in historical perspective.Freud once pointed out that the history of ideas in the last fewcenturies has been punctuated by "revolutions," major upheavals of thought that have forever altered our view of ourselves and our placein the cosmos.First, there was the Copernican system dethroning the earth as thecenter of the cosmos. Second was the Darwinian revolution; the ideathat far from being the climax of "intelligent design" we are merelyneotonous apes that happen to be slightly cleverer than our cousins.Third, the Freudian view that even though you claim to be "in charge"of your life, your behavior is in fact governed by a cauldron of drivesand motives of which you are largely unconscious. And fourth, thediscovery of DNA and the genetic code with its implication (to quoteJames Watson) that "There are only molecules. Everything else issociology".To this list we can now add the fifth, the "neuroscience revolution"and its corollary pointed out by Crick — the "astonishing hypothesis"— that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere
 
byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons.If all this seems dehumanizing, you haven't seen anything yet.Consider the following thought experiment that used to be a favoriteof philosophers (it was also the basis for the recent Hollywoodblockbuster The Matrix): Let's advance to a point of time where weknow everything there is to know about the intricate circuitry andfunctioning of the human brain. With this knowledge, it would bepossible for a neuroscientist to isolate your brain in a vat of nutrientsand keep it alive and healthy indefinitely.Utilizing thousands of electrodes and appropriate patterns of electrical stimulation, the scientist makes your brain think and feelthat it's experiencing actual life events. The simulation is perfect andincludes a sense of time and planning for the future. The braindoesn't know that its experiences, its entire life, are not real.Further assume that the scientist can make your brain "think" andexperience being a combination of Einstein, Mark Spitz, Bill Gates,Hugh Heffner, and Gandhi, while at the same time preserving your own deeply personal memories and identity (there's nothing incontemporary brain science that forbids such a scenario). The madneuroscientist then gives you a choice. You can either be thisincredible, deliriously happy being floating forever in the vat or beyour real self, more or less like you are now (for the sake of argumentwe will further assume that you are basically a happy and contendedperson, not a starving pheasant). Which of the two would you pick?I have posed this question to dozens of scientists and lay people. Amajority argue "I'd rather be the real me." This is an irrational choicebecause you already are a brain in a vat (the cranial cavity) nurturedby cerebrospinal fluid and blood and bombarded by photons. Whenasked to select between two vats most pick the crummy one eventhough it is no more real than the neuroscientist's experimental vat.How can you justify this choice unless you believe in somethingsupernatural?I have heard three counter-arguments on the premise of thisexperiment. First, the brain, as Antonio Damasio argues so
 
eloquently, is a natural extension of the body, not an isolatedcomputer sitting on your neck. True, but this "embodiment" plusvisceral and proprioceptive inputs can also be simulated. Second,what if the vat isn't well maintained? What if it falls down andcrashes? This could happen, but such an accident can also happento the real you. Third, the simulation of Einstein and Gates (andeveryone else) can never be exact. This might be true, but it's notrelevant. So what if the simulation is only 98% correct? Your ownbrain fluctuations from year to year are probably as great, if notgreater.If you think this scenario is farfetched just look at what's going onaround you in the world; Cell phones, iPods, Palm Pilots, theworldwide web, email, blogs, e-publishing, and virtual reality. We areall slowly and imperceptibly approaching the brain in the vat scenariowhere all functions will be literally at your fingertips as you becomedissolved in cyberspace.What about "culture"? I think of homo sapiens as "the cultured ape"because it is cultural diversity above all that defines us as a species.Through the emergence and further elaboration of a group of neuronscalled "mirror neurons" our brains have become symbiotic, or parasitic, with culture (a child raised in a cave would not berecognizably human.) Can we simulate cultural sophistication in thevat? Will the world in the 25th century be hundreds of warehouseswith thousands of brains in rows and rows of vats? They could evenall be identical to each other to save time and effort programming.Why not? No one brain would know it was the same as every other.Iaccomo Rizzolati and Vittorio Gallasse discovered mirror neurons.They found that neurons in the ventral premotor area of macaquemonkeys will fire anytime a monkey performs a complex action suchas reaching for a peanut, pulling a lever, pushing a door, etc.(different neurons fire for different actions). Most of these neuronscontrol motor skill (originally discovered by Vernon Mountcastle in the60's), but a subset of them, the Italians found, will fire even when themonkey watches another monkey perform the same action. Inessence, the neuron is part of a network that allows you to see theworld "from the other persons point of view," hence the name “mirror neuron."

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