Monday, March 8, 2010

Mirror Neurons: The foundation of language?

In an article on the APA website by Beth Azar, the author explores several theories surrounding "mirror neurons"--pathways in the brain that psychologists like V.S. Ramachandran believe may have been the key that propelled humanoids into humans. Mirror neurons, in theory, allow one human to mimic the actions, language, etc. of another human, believed to be a fundamental key to learning. Having just come out of my French class, I realized for the last five minutes of class we sat mimicking my professor, reciting in unison, trying to imitate her accent and even tone.
It's these neurons, Ramachandran believes, that allowed humans to take what he calls the "great leap forward" in evolution--to learn language, forms of art, and technology. But mirror neurons are present in apes, but why then did they not develop language? We've all seen it at the zoo, the way chimps mimic our movements through glass. But evolution is all about being at the right place at the right time. Ramachandran explains, "Wings evolved from forelimbs, but no one wonders why humans didn't evolve wings even though we also have forelimbs."
It does make sense that there would be a unifying physiological reason, something as small as a neuron, that would explain why we see similarities across cultures and even time that had no interaction with one another. Ramachandran and other psychologists propose that this unifying framework is made up of mirror neurons. At a fundamental level, it would have allowed our early-ancestors to mimic each other's movements in order to communicate before the advent of language. It is even what allows us today to respond appropriately to the emotions of others. We see a friend crying, we recall what it is to cry, how we feel, and imitate their behavior in order to have the appropriate emotional response. It is even proposed that people with autism, a disorder where patients are incapable of interpreting other's emotions, may have defective mirror neurons, or even lack them altogether.
The most controversial theory in regards to mirror neurons proposed by Ramachandran is that they could be the framework of language itself. While there is not enough research done to prove that this is the case, why not explore the theory? It seems that scientists are always trying to determine the root of language itself, and other psychologists criticize Ramachandran for jumping at mirror neurons to explain language, but the study is young, and we could perhaps discover one day that Ramachandran is indeed right.

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