THE BLOG

The Mind Outside the Brain (Part 4)

To gain credibility, the mind outside the brain must also be mirrored inside the brain. If your brain didn't register what the mind is doing, there would be no way to detect the mind. Like a TV program being broadcast in the air, a receiver picks up the signal and makes it visible. The brain is a receiver for the mind field. The field itself is invisible, but as mirrored in our brains, it comes to life as images, sensations, and an infinite array of experiences.

As it happens, the word "mirror" has become extremely significant in brain science, ever since a research team in Parma, Italy discovered and named the mirror neuron in the 1980s. A mirror neuron does exactly what I've described: it observes activity in the outside world and imitates it without any material connection to another brain. For example, when a mother monkey is eating a banana, certain areas of her brain become active. Yet they also become active in her baby's brain while it watches her eat. By isolating one mirror neuron at a time, it can be seen that this trait becomes quite specific. A neuron that fires while watching someone eat an apple will be different from the one that fires while watching someone holding an apple in his hand and then putting it down.
Mirror neuron - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
From the moment they were discovered mirror neurons caused tremendous excitement, because they seem to offer the key to many mysteries of the brain. Empathy is one. How is it that we sense what another person is feeling or what they intend to do. Mirror neurons become a plausible explanation. Assuming that humans and not just monkeys possess mirror neurons (so far, it seems plausible that we do), you know when someone else is happy, said, disappointed, or frustrated because the same neurons that fire when you feel that way also fire when you are an observer.

Would this also account for why some people can read others extremely well? Is their heightened empathy a sign that they have more activity in the mirror neuron center? So far the indication is yes. Women, who are generally considered more empathic than men, exhibit greater activity in the mirror neuron center. At the other extreme, autistic children are thought by some researchers to exhibit less than normal activity.

One is reminded of simple experiments with magnets, where lining up a piece of iron with a magnet will cause their atoms to begin to align, creating the magnetic effect without the two ever touching. We tend to assume that the world touches us by bombarding our eyes with photons, our ears with vibrating air molecules, and so on. but researchers were struck by how specific a mirror neuron is. It won't respond unless the activity being observed matches its own activity. If a mirror neuron is active during eating, for example, it won't be active for emotions or language. The very fact that an action can be so precisely matched between two unrelated brains has strong implications for a theory of mind.

So far, the phenomenon of mirror neurons hasn't been isolated to single neurons in the human brain. Due to the complexity of the laboratory work, it hasn't traveled very far into the general public. This means that mirror neurons will be held captive for the time being by the belief system of neurology, which is overwhelmingly materialistic. That is, the brain being a solid object comes first while mind, if it exists at all, comes second. Yet I would argue that most of the things we most cherish about the mind, including empathy, language, and learning, depend on mind coming first, and the mirror neuron serves its purposes.

(to be continued)

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