These days the Revolution in Egypt is on a “blade edge”…
The following article is therefore republished here with the purpose or Re-Re-flection!
Monday, 31 January 2011
AFRICA, Democracy & the Youth; Inquiries for Reflection
„Bad faith“and the “Mirror-neurological sense”!
AFRICA, Democracy & the Youth; Inquiries for Reflection;
“It’s as if anytime you want to make a judgment about someone else’s movements you have to run a VR (virtual reality) simulation of the corresponding movements in your own brain and without mirror neurons you cannot do this.”( S. 3 http://williamlspencer.com/mirrorneurons.pdf)
The mirror neurons speak their own language. They care little for philology and linguistics. The political class of Africa, in regions where democratic values don’t prevail, tries to design and introduce political contention or alliance and unity through rhetoric and false faith. If the recent discoveries in the vicinity of neuro-science and human social cognition prove to be tenable and well founded*1), a political environment of concerted action towards development and genuine democracy cannot be engineered employing a “pseudo” authenticity, with the hope of concealing it from the contenders… – since the so-called “mirror neurons “ trigger and flash only in their authentic nature, i.e. only if the genuine intention at the mind – the neurological micro level do not fall short of the declaration of intention, which is limited mostly at the rhetoric level and not manifesting an internal reality . The system of the “virtual reality” anticipated through “the system of mirror neurons” seems to work predominantly according the nature of good faith. If that fails every constituent part of the deal knows the case, and the deal is therefore condemned to fail, sooner or later.
To contemplate the neuro-scientific backdrop of why the practice of democracy among the “democratic” elite of Africa has failed, when it comes to sharing power at all instances, be it at the micro level of its day to day practice or at the macro level of state power, reading the following essays in the relevant fields can initiate a serious reflection to promote some grain of sincerity in the deliberation of democratic practices and to forge sustaining alliances of genuine character towards an all encompassing collective social development, without abandoning a fair and democratic contention at all levels (micro & macro) :
“The recent research on the MNS in humans may shed light on the social nature of language, and provide neuroscientific grounding to aspects of language investigated by psycholinguistics like, among others, situation models and collaborative and interactive accounts of conversation, according to which the perception of shared environment and behaviors helps in maintaining alignment between conversational partners”
(see Clark & Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986; Pickering & Garrod, 2004).” (s. 2 ff.
and more on “mirror neurons” see below *1)
A few inquiries:
1. To begin from the far end of the negative pole, why do religion & ideology rally the masses more easily than hypocritical democratic notion?
2. Why does democratic deliberation fail if it is based on “bad faith?
3. How can “the system of mirror neurons” well anchored at the backdrop (or the Unconscious awareness”) of the mind, formed through a process of millions of years of evolution, affect the substantial fundament of social movements and deliberations of common interest?
4. What is the enlightening point in the system of democracy to function as an arbitral system to run a social collective for a just distribution of benefits and interests?
5. If democracy is (pseudo) played and not genuine why does it simply fail due to our inborn system of “mirror-neurological sense”!
6. Why does a hierarchical system of a dictatorship or any highly centralized organized social body function, given the system of the “virtual reality” of mirrored “neurological sense”? …Yes with every part of the hierarchy accepting its role –subservient or dominating? I.e. there is no “bad faith” in the accepted role, until it shatters and begins to “dissipate” like natural phenomenon of systemic changes!
7. At the risk of being blunt and misunderstood ( in the sense of social evolutionary biology) , l would state, “the other primates don’t try to cheat each other” in their social interactions, since they all “know” it would fail, because they simply naturally ( perhaps without anticipating any contingencies) sense how their mirror neurons fire.
8. But “Humans” if they don’t share democratic values, they try to obscure one another with an objective of dominating each other. (cf. Machiavellian intentions and means). Intrinsically interpreted, is this not dramatic and highly inhuman deep down!
And at last the big question:
9. Why does the youth initiate and stage a successful social transformation until the abuse follows by the elite (of the Machiavellian school), which would willingly allow power corruption and all sorts of these stuffs including the deconstruction of the achievements of a democratic revolution to creep in “later in the day”?
These questions are I think very relevant, since in the African Movement of TODAY against tyranny (with the contemporary heroic uprisings of the peoples of Tunisia & Egypt at the front), the contention between the “big” notions is by far not determined, i.e.:
Which one of the contending big IDEAS will win the minds and the hearts of THE YOUTH?
Ideological dogma and Religion or The vision of ENLIGTENMENT and Genuine Democracy!
*1) Reference-Essay from a scholar in the field:
Mirror neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution
by V. S. Ramachandran
(Sorry ! This piece is here reproduced without formal permission, hoping a tacit permission from the author at this crucial time of the African people to get rid of tyranny from their continent, sparked by the heroic peoples of Tunisia and Egypt in North Africa)
From the Third Culture: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/
The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance
to human brain evolution — which I speculate on in this essay — is the single most
important unreported (or at least, unpublicized) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons
will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and
help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible
There are many puzzling questions about the evolution of the human mind and brain:
1) The hominid brain reached almost its present size — and perhaps even its present intellectual
capacity about 250,000 years ago. Yet many of the attributes we regard as uniquely
human appeared only much later. Why? What was the brain doing during the long incubation
period? Why did it have all this latent potential for tool use, fire, art, music and perhaps even
language that blossomed only considerably later? How did these latent abilities emerge, given
that natural selection can only select expressed abilities, not latent ones? I shall call this
“Wallace’s problem,” after the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace who first proposed it.
2) Crude “Oldawan” tools — made by just a few blows to a core stone to create an irregular
edge — emerged 2.4 million ago and were probably made by Homo habilis whose brain size
was half way (700 cc) between modern humans (1300) and chimps (400). After another million
years of evolutionary stasis aesthetically pleasing symmetrical tools began to appear associated
with a standardization of production technique and artefact form. These required switching from
a hard hammer to a soft (wooden?) hammer while the tool was being made, in order to ensure a
smooth rather than jagged, irregular edge. And lastly, the invention of stereotyped assembly line
tools (sophisticated symmetrical bifacial tools) that were hafted to a handle, took place only
200,000 years ago. Why was the evolution of the human mind punctuated by these relatively
sudden upheavals of technological change?
3) Why the sudden explosion (often called the “great leap”) in technological sophistication,
widespread cave art, clothes, stereotyped dwellings, etc. around 40 thousand years ago, even
though the brain had achieved its present modern size almost a million years earlier?
4) Did language appear completely out of the blue as suggested by Chomsky? Or did it
evolve from a more primitive gestural language that was already in place?
5) Humans are often called the “Machiavellian primate” referring to our ability to “read
minds” in order to predict other peoples’ behaviour and outsmart them. Why are apes and
humans so good at reading other individuals’ intentions? Do higher primates have a specialised
brain centre or module for generating a “theory of other minds” as proposed by Nick Humphrey
and Simon Baron-Cohen? If so, where is this circuit and how and when did it evolve?
The solution to many of these riddles comes from an unlikely source: The study of single
neurons in the brains of monkeys. I suggest that the questions become less puzzling when you
consider Giaccamo Rizzollati’s recent discovery of “mirror neurons” in the ventral pre-motor
area of monkeys. This cluster of neurons, I argue, holds the key to understanding many enigmatic
aspects of human evolution. Rizzollati and Arbib have already pointed out the relevance of
their discovery to language evolution. But I believe the significance of their findings for understanding
other equally important aspects of human evolution has been largely overlooked. This,
in my view, is the most important unreported “story” in the last decade.
The emergence of language
UNLIKE MANY other human traits such as humour, art, dancing or music the survival
value of language is obvious — it helps us communicate our thoughts and intentions. But the
question of how such an extraordinary ability might have actually evolved has puzzled biologists,
psychologists and philosophers at least since the time of Charles Darwin. The problem is
that the human vocal apparatus is vastly more sophisticated than that of any ape but without the
correspondingly sophisticated language areas in the brain the vocal equipment alone would be
useless. So how did these two mechanisms with so many sophisticated interlocking parts evolve
in tandem? Following Darwin’s lead I suggest that our vocal equipment and our remarkable
ability to modulate voice evolved mainly for producing emotional calls and musical sounds during
courtship (“crooning a tune”). Once that evolved then the brain — especially the left hemisphere
— could evolve language.
But a bigger puzzle remains. Is language mediated by a sophisticated and highly specialised
“language organ” that is unique to humans and emerged completely out of the blue as suggested
by Chomsky? Or was there a more primitive gestural communication system already in place
that provided a scaffolding for the emergence of vocal language?
Rizzolatti’s discovery can help us solve this age-old puzzle. He recorded from the ventral
pre-motor area of the frontal lobes of monkeys and found that certain cells will fire when a
monkey performs a single, highly specific action with its hand: pulling, pushing, tugging, grasping,
picking up and putting a peanut in the mouth etc. Different neurons fire in response to different
actions. One might be tempted to think that these are motor “command” neurons, making
muscles do certain things; however, the astonishing truth is that any given mirror neuron will
also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter)
performing the same action, e.g. Tasting a peanut! With knowledge of these neurons, you have the
basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: “mind reading”
empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language. Anytime you watch someone
else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might
fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to “read” and understand another’s intentions, and thus
to develop a sophisticated “theory of other minds.” (I suggest, also, that a loss of these mirror
neurons may explain autism — a cruel disease that afflicts children. Without these neurons the
child can no longer understand or empathise with other people emotionally and therefore
completely withdraws from the world socially.)
(Another important piece of the puzzle is Rizzolatti’s observation that the ventral pre-motor
area may be a homologue of the “Broca’s area” — a brain centre associated with the expressive
and syntactic aspects of language in humans).
These arguments do not in any way negate the idea that there are specialised brain areas for
language in humans. We are dealing, here, with the question of how such areas may have
evolved, not whether they exist or not.
Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys but how do we know they exist in the human
brain? To find out we studied patients with a strange disorder called anosognosia. Most patients
with a right hemisphere stroke have complete paralysis of the left side of their body and will
complain about it, as expected. But about 5% of them will vehemently deny their paralysis even
though they are mentally otherwise lucid and intelligent. This is the so-called “denial” syndrome
or anosognosia. To our amazement, we found that some of these patients not only denied their
own paralysis, but also denied the paralysis of another patient whose inability to move his arm
was clearly visible to them and to others. Denying ones own paralysis is odd enough but why
would a patient deny another patient’s paralysis? We suggest that this bizarre observation is best
understood in terms of damage to Rizzolatti’s mirror neurons. It’s as if anytime you want to
make a judgement about someone else’s movements you have to run a VR (virtual reality) simulation
of the corresponding movements in your own brain and without mirror neurons
you cannot do this.
The second piece of evidence comes from studying brain waves (EEG) in humans. When
people move their hands a brain wave called the mu wave gets blocked and disappears completely.
Eric Altschuller, Jamie Pineda, and I suggested at the society for neurosciences in 1998
that this suppression was caused by Rizzolati’s mirror neuron system. Consistent with this theory
we found that such suppression also occurs when a person watches someone else moving his
hand but not if he watches a similar movement by an inanimate object. (We predict that children
with autism should show suppression if they move their own hands but not if they watch some
one else. Our lab now has preliminary hints from one highly functioning autistic child that this
might be true (social neuroscience abstracts 2000).
The big bang of human evolution
The hominid brain grew at an accelerating pace until it reached its present size of 1500 cc
about 200,000 years ago. Yet uniquely human abilities such the invention of highly sophisticated
“standardised” multi-part tools, tailored clothes, art, religious belief and perhaps even language
are thought to have emerged quite rapidly around 40,000 years ago — a sudden explosion of
human mental abilities and culture that is sometimes called the “big bang.” If the brain reached
its full human potential — or at least size — 200,000 years ago why did it remain idle for
150,000 years? Most scholars are convinced that the big bang occurred because of some
unknown genetic change in brain structure. For instance, the archaeologist Steve Mithen has just
written a book in which he claims that before the big bang there were three different brain modules
in the human brain that were specialised for “social or Machiavellian intelligence,” for
“mechanical intelligence” or tool use, and for “natural history” (a propensity to classify). These
three modules remained isolated from each other but around 50,000 years ago some genetic
change in the brain suddenly allowed them to communicate with each other, resulting in the
enormous flexibility and versatility of human consciousness.
I disagree with Mithen’s ingenious suggestion and offer a very different solution to the problem.
(This is not incompatible with Mithen’s view but it’s a different idea). I suggest that the socalled
big bang occurred because certain critical environmental triggers acted on a brain that had
already become big for some other reason and was therefore “pre-adapted” for those cultural
innovations that make us uniquely human. (One of the key pre adaptations being mirror neurons.)
Inventions like tool use; art, math and even aspects of language may have been invented
“accidentally” in one place and then spread very quickly given the human brain’s amazing
capacity for imitation learning and mind reading using mirror neurons. Perhaps any major
“innovation” happens because of a fortuitous coincidence of environmental circumstances —
usually at a single place and time. But given our species’ remarkable propensity for miming,
such an invention would tend to spread very quickly through the population — once it emerged.
Mirror neurons obviously cannot be the only answer to all these riddles of evolution. After
all rhesus monkeys and apes have them, yet they lack the cultural sophistication of humans
(although it has recently been shown that chimps at least do have the rudiments of culture, even
in the wild). I would argue, though, that mirror neurons are necessary but not sufficient: their
emergence and further development in hominids was a decisive step. The reason is that once
you have a certain minimum amount of “imitation learning” and “culture” in place, this culture
can, in turn, exert the selection pressure for developing those additional mental traits that make
us human. And once this starts happening you have set in motion the autocatalytic process that
culminated in modern human consciousness.
A second problem with my suggestion is that it doesn’t explain why the many human inno-
vations that constitute the big bang occurred during a relatively short period. If it were simply a
matter of chance discoveries spreading rapidly, why would all of them have occurred at the
same time? There are three answers to this objection. First, the evidence that it all took place at
the same time is tenuous. The invention of music, shelters, hafted tools, tailored clothing, writing,
speech, etc., may have been spread out between 100k and 5k and the so-called great leap
may be a sampling artefact of archaeological excavation. Second, any given innovation (e.g.
speech or writing or tools) may have served as a catalyst for the others and may have therefore
accelerated the pace of culture as a whole. And third, there may indeed have been a genetic
change, but it may not have been an increase in the ability to innovate (nor a breakdown of barriers
between modules as suggested by Mithen) but an increase in the sophistication of the mirror
neuron system and therefore in “learnability.” The resulting increase in ability to imitate and
learn (and teach) would then explain the explosion of cultural change that we call the “great
leap forward” or the “big bang” in human evolution. This argument implies that the whole
“nature-nurture debate” is largely meaningless as far as humans are concerned. Without the
genetically specified learnability that characterises the human brain Homo sapiens wouldn’t
deserve the title “sapiens” (wise) but without being immersed in a culture that can take advantage
of this learnability, the title would be equally inappropriate. In this sense human culture and
human brain have co-evolved into obligatory mutual parasites — without either the result would
not be a human being. (No more than you can have a cell without its parasitic mitochondria).
The second big bang
My suggestion that these neurons provided the initial impetus for “runaway” brain/ culture
co-evolution in humans isn’t quite as bizarre as it sounds. Imagine a Martian anthropologist was
studying human evolution a million years from now. He would be puzzled (like Wallace was) by
the relatively sudden emergence of certain mental traits like sophisticated tool use, use of fire,
art and “culture” and would try to correlate them (as many anthropologists now do) with purported
changes in brain size and anatomy caused by mutations. But unlike them he would also
be puzzled by the enormous upheavals and changes that occurred after (say) 19th century —
what we call the scientific/industrial revolution. This revolution is, in many ways, much more
dramatic (e.g. The sudden emergence of nuclear power, automobiles, air travel, and space travel)
than the “great leap forward” that happened 40,000 years ago!
He might be tempted to argue that there must have been a genetic change and corresponding
change in brain anatomy and behaviour to account for this second leap forward. (Just as many
anthropologists today seek a genetic explanation for the first one.) Yet we know that present one
occurred exclusively because of fortuitous environmental circumstances, because Galileo
invented the “experimental method,” that, together with royal patronage and the invention of the
printing press, kicked off the scientific revolution. His experiments and the earlier invention of a
sophisticated new language called mathematics in India in the first millennium AD (based on
place value notation, zero and the decimal system), set the stage for Newtonian mechanics and
the calculus and “the rest is history” as we say.
Now the thing to bear in mind is that none of this need have happened. It certainly did not
happen because of a genetic change in the human brains during the renaissance. It happened at
least partly because of imitation learning and rapid “cultural” transmission of knowledge.
(Indeed one could almost argue that there was a greater behavioural/cognitive difference
between pre-18th century and post 20th century humans than between Homo erectus and archaic
Homo sapiens. Unless he knew better our Martian ethnologist may conclude that there was a
bigger genetic difference between the first two groups than the latter two species!)
Based on this analogy, I suggest, further, that even the first great leap forward was made
possible largely by imitation and emulation. Wallace’s question was perfectly sensible; it is very
puzzling how a set of extraordinary abilities seemed to emerge “out of the blue.” But his solution
was wrong. The apparently sudden emergence of things like art or sophisticated tools was
not because of god or “divine intervention.” I would argue instead that just as a single invention
(or two) by Galileo and Gutenberg quickly spread and transformed the surface of the globe
(although there was no preceding genetic change), inventions like fire, tailored clothes, “symmetrical
tools,” and art, etc. may have fortuitously emerged in a single place and then spread
very quickly. Such inventions may have been made by earlier hominids, too (even chimps and
orangs are remarkably inventive — who knows how inventive Homo erectus or Neanderthals
were?). But early hominids simply may not have had an advanced enough mirror neuron system
to allow a rapid transmission and dissemination of ideas. So the ideas quickly drop out of the
“meme pool.” This system of cells, once it became sophisticated enough to be harnessed for
“training” in tool use and for reading other hominids minds, may have played the same pivotal
role in the emergence of human consciousness (and replacement of Neanderthals by Homo sapiens)
as the asteroid impact did in the triumph of mammals over reptiles.
So it makes no more sense to ask “why did sophisticated tool use and art emerge only
40,000 years ago even though the brain had all the required latent ability 100,000 years earlier?”
— than to ask “why did space travel occur only a few decades ago, even though our brains were
pre-adapted for space travel at least as far back Cro magnons?” The question ignores the important
role of contingency or plain old luck in human evolutionary history.
Thus I regard Rizzolati’s discovery — and my purely speculative conjectures on their key
role in our evolution — as the most important unreported story of the last decade.
V.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with
the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San
Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. Ramachandran initially trained as
a doctor and subsequently obtained a Ph.D. from Trinity College at the University of
Cambridge. Ramachandran’s early work was on visual perception but he is best known for his
experiments in behavioral neurology, which, despite their apparent simplicity, have had a pro –
found impact on the way we think about the brain. He has been called “The Marco Polo of neu –
roscience” by Richard Dawkins and “The modern Paul Broca” by Eric Kandel.
In 2005 he was awarded the Henry Dale Medal and elected to an honorary life fellowship
by the Royal Instituion of Great Britain. His other honours and awards include fellowships from
All Souls College, Oxford, and from Stanford University; the Presidential Lecture Award from
the American Academy of Neurology, two honorary doctorates, the annual Ramon Y Cajal
award from the International Neuropsychiatry Society, and the Ariens-Kappers medal from the
Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences. In 2003 he gave the annual BBC Reith lectures and
was the first physician/psychologist to give the lectures since they were begun by Bertrand
Russel in 1949. In 1995 he gave the Decade of the Brain lecture at the 25th annual (Silver
Jubilee) meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Most recently the President of India conferred
on him the second highest civilian award and honorific title in India, the Padma Bhushan.
Ramachandran has published over 180 papers in scientific journals (including five invited
review articles in the Scientific American). He is author of the acclaimed book “Phantoms in
the Brain” that has been translated into nine languages and formed the basis for a two part
series on Channel Four TV (UK) and a 1 hour PBS special in USA. NEWSWEEK magazine has
named him a member of “The Century Club” – one of the “hundred most prominent people to
watch in the next century.”