The key to understanding social interaction?


When we were kids, my uncle used to play a trick on us while we sat at a meal: He would start scratching his nose, gradually we kids would start scratching too. Suddenly he would shout: ‘Caught you!’ We’d look up and burst into giggles, realising we were all doing the same thing.

That was back a few years….well, a lot of years. It turns out that such imitation is the very essence of what makes us human. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, neurophysiologists found what could be a major way that the human brain creates this unconscious mimicry and called it the ‘mirror neuron’. If they are right, our rapidly expanding knowledge of mirror neurons has very wide implications for understanding how social interaction happens – how we develop into socialised humans, how we can improve our communication, even possibly an understanding of the basis of civilisation itself. So expect to hear the term used frequently in many fields.

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I am a little bit skeptical. In recent years, I’ve watched, at very close quarters, a relative make an exceptional recovery from a serious brain injury. A sample of one, I know, but it has left me in awe at the complexity, multi-layeredness and sheer unexpectedness of the connections in the human brain. The mirror neuron theory sounds almost too handy to be true – a bit similar to the gross over- simplification of the right brain/left brain dichotomy.

Still, who am I to know? Some scientists are expressing wariness. Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkley is one. She wrote the wonderful book, ‘The Philosophical Baby’, so she knows a lot about human social learning. On the other hand, the great V.S Ramachandran is a fan, so it can’t all be bad! The Integral Options Cafe has a good brief summary of some of the debate. Anyone have any thoughts on it?

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