Manhattan Project #45 Mommy, what’s a mirror neuron?

(wherein intrepid journalist Jed Berman, now a veteran of the Afghan War, digs into his pot-smoking friend Doris’s suggestion that mirror neurons are somehow connected to human atrocities and immediately runs into porn research)

So I did what anyone does these days, at the front end of a research project, I googled mirror neurons, using the advanced search function to make sure any websites that turned up used the whole term. At my age, I thought I was pretty clever to get into using the advanced search, rather than the regular Google function.

Truth is, I used it a lot on stories and it really did speed up the process. In the old days, if I got into a hot topic that needed some research or expert support, I contacted think tanks or people who had something to contribute by phone, and they’d either fax the stuff over or offer to put a study in the mail for me. That often meant I couldn’t pull off the story the same day I started working on it. But with the Internet, everything went much quicker and I had growing confidence that if I searched well I wouldn’t miss much info that really ought to be part of the story.

No one has ever accused my age group of being the computer generation, but I have to say some of us have picked up on it pretty well. In my line of work, it makes me a better reporter. Yea, Google, right?

Anyway, the advanced search for mirror neurons brought up 140,000 results in less than three-tenths of a second—the speed involved here still amazes me after all these years of using it. Good old Wikipedia, which I don’t tend to trust completely but sometimes it’s a good place to start, depending on who wrote the entry, said mirror neurons are brain cells—neurons—that fire when an animal does something and when the animal sees another animal do the same thing. It said they’ve studied mirror neurons mostly in monkeys, but they thought they were in humans, too.

That was kind of interesting to me. That’s probably the biggest reason I got into the news business. I’m curious about just about everything, so I didn’t mind meeting mirror neurons. But I didn’t automatically see why Doris thought this particular kind of brain cells would change my life. So I kept digging.

One of the first things I came across was a study that linked mirror neurons and porn. Boy, those researchers can get money for anything, you know? Anyway, what they wanted to know was whether mirror neurons were involved in the size of the chubby guys got when they looked at dirty pictures. They fitted their subjects—eight young guys actually volunteered for this—with a penile plethysmograph.

If you’ve heard of that, you’re way ahead of me. It’s an air-tight tube that measured how much bigger their penises got when they looked at porn. And while they were showing them the pictures, they scanned their brains to see what lit up. And, sure enough, it was the part where the mirror neurons are. The most important thing they learned, I guess, was that the size of the erection was predicted by how much the mirror neurons lit up on the scan. So, for however many thousand dollars, those guys now know that, apparently, the mirror neurons have to fire before a guy gets a stiffy. Again, interesting, but not particularly useful to me.

What was useful was the stuff I found that connected mirror neurons to my chronic questions. Stay with me on this, it might seem a little dry at first. But what researchers have figured out is that—and this is where it gets really interesting, I think—first of all, we inherited mirror neurons from our pre-human ancestors. Second, they say mirror neurons, when they’re working right, are what allow us to feel empathy for other animals, human and otherwise. And here’s the really potent part: More and more researchers believe the ability to feel each other’s pain—empathy—evolved way before our ability to think and reflect.

So what we’re talking about here is the big question about human nature, the one Leakey and Lorenz and Ardrey and so many others have argued about all these years. Are we born violent or are we born cooperative, with the ability to empathize? Well, this research, cranked out by some of the best neuroscientists in the world, points in the direction of non-violence and cooperation, which is what Leakey argued all along, even though he didn’t have all of the science to prove it.

These scientists basically believe that the ability to live cooperatively was in fact favored by the process of natural selection. And they’ve found this mirror neuron thing in all sorts of other species. Don’t ask me how, but they even say test mice in the lab felt distress when they saw other mice experiencing pain. If this all sounds far out, you don’t have to take my word for it. As they say, you could look it up.

But do you see where this is going? If you do, you might accuse me of really committing that classic journalistic sin—burying the lead. This is potentially big stuff. Some scientists think it’s even bigger than the discovery of DNA. It means, for one thing, that all of us, including Doris and me, who have felt such incredible pain and confusion watching human beings inflict so much mayhem and death on other human beings all around us are neither crazy nor cowards. Maybe we’re just in closer touch with our real human natures. Don’t ask me why, but maybe we are. The scientists say children develop the ability to feel empathy by the time they’re a year and a half old, maybe earlier.

If you’re still with me, you’re probably asking: If this is all true, then why are we such a violent species? If it took mirror neurons and empathy and cooperation to get us up the evolutionary ladder to human beings, where’d it go? I mean, we’ve been talking about this for quite a while now, and it’s pretty clear all the violence and killing have been going on practically everywhere on earth for thousands and thousands of years. What happened to human nature?

The neuroscientists have an answer for that. First, they make clear that these mirror neurons developed in our primitive brains, allowing us to react empathetically—cooperatively—with those around us instantaneously, even before what we call our conscious minds had developed. That’s how basic this stuff is to human nature; we were doing it even before we had enough brain power to think about it. In fact, according to the scientists, it was after we learned to think that things took a turn for the worse.

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