July 21, 2006

Mirror neurons and the Girardian perspective

If some idea is true it will remain so no matter which way you are approaching it.

An article in Scientific American Mind which I happened to pick up yesterday on a bus from Jerusalem, immediately made me remember this old truth. Let me share with you what has stricken my imagination.

Let us start from afar. There is a deeply fascinating and thought provoking perspective on Christianity and its influence on the Western culture (not a simple topic, is it?) that has been evolving from the works of a French philosopher Rene Girard and a catholic theologian James Alison. Some of my friends are very fond of, I would even say, deeply in love with the Girardian "mimetic theory" and the way it reconciles Christianity, social science, psychology and evolution. The "mimetic theory" is a great topic in itself, but what I was reminded of by the SciAm article was the key axiom of the mimetic theory. Let us formulate it like this:

"Human beings are able to replicate the desires and behavior of other people in an extremely efficient and fundamental way".

There has been a very diverse and solid evidence for this mimetic (from the word imitation) ability of human spirits, but so far it was coming from the realms of psychology, social science, literary analysis and the like.

What I have learnt from SciAm is that in 1996 three Italian neurophysiologists have discovered (initially in monkeys!) an explicit neural mechanism for mirroring others' actions. They were recording electric activity of specific neurons of a monkey who was used to picking raisins from the ground. One day a researcher (Leonardo Fogassi) entered the room and casually picked up a raisin himself. To his astonishment and disbelief those specific neurons in monkey's brain have fired exactly the same pattern as they generate when the monkey takes the raisins herself. After much more research and thinking they confirmed the existence of such "mirror neurons" in a series of scholarly peer-reviewed papers.

As David Dobbs (SciAm article author) puts it, "...this finding means we mentally rehearse or imitate every action we witness, whether it is a somersault or a subtle smile. It explains much about how we learn to smile, talk, walk, dance or play tennis. At a deeper level, it suggests a biological dynamic for our understanding of others, the complex exchange of ideas we call culture, and psychosocial dysfunctions ranging from lack of empathy to autism".

We might take a step further and recall the human soul's capability of being "an image of God". According to Girard and Alison, it is this very ability which makes us both sinners and saints. It is the one which locks us in cycles of violence and scapegoating, but also paves the way for unlimited growth and fulfillment in Chirstlikeness.

I have a strong feeling that, by giving an explicit explanation to the fundamental mimetic ability of humans, the recently discovered "mirror neurons" add a crucial piece to the puzzle of the human soul.

If you feel interested in these ideas, here are some good (to my taste) links about the theology of James Alison, and about mirror neurons and their impact on culture.

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