In Marco Iacoboni’s talk on mirror neurons, the neurologist explained that humans have special cells that are designed to help us imitate others. Studies show that the area of the brain that activates when a person grabs an object also activates when a person simply sees someone else grabbing an object. Imitation, as it turns out, is a powerful way of communicating between people because it allows us to feel what other people feel. In other words, our circuitry is designed for us to feel empathetic toward others. It is a system that promotes social interaction.
Interestingly, as I was learning more about mirror neurons, National Geographic aired a tv special on brain games. One of the scenes showed a man cutting his finger with a knife. As you watch that scene, it’s almost impossible not to wince. Mirror neurons are coming into play here, and I could imagine that the person in the scene was me, and I had cut my hand with a knife!
What I found most interesting was the correlation between the activity of mirror neurons and social behavior; it seems that the more a person imitates others, the more he or she empathizes with others and the more social he or she is. Children with autism have “broken mirrors,” or a lack of activity from mirror neurons.
All of this can be tied back to our previous reading on Evolutionary Psychology, which implies that everything that we do can be traced back to pure physiology and that we are hard-wired to make the choices that we do. As humans, we naturally seek out groups and social activities.
I do not believe this discounts the idea of free-will; Even though we are prone to feel or believe one thing or another based on pure chemical and physiological factors, I believe we can still make are own decisions that disregard this. Simply becoming aware of the effects of evolutionary psychology on ourselves can lead us to make logical conclusions with or against what are genes might be trying to persuade us to do.