Mind meld

A few days ago, I wrote about some research that suggests that men’s behavior can be affected by hormonal changes in a woman’s body.

So, okay. Appropriating another person’s bio-active chemicals has an effect on one’s own biochemistry.

But get a load of this: apparently, you don’t even need to get close up and personal to fall under someone’s spell.

In a contribution to a round-up of “dangerous ideas” at The Edge, Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist and director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at UCLA, describes a phenomenon called “mirror neurons.”

Mirror neurons are cells located in the premotor cortex, the part of the brain relevant to the planning, selection and execution of actions . . . [They] fire when we observe somebody else performing the same action. The behavior of these cells seems to suggest that the observer is looking at her/his own actions reflected by a mirror, while watching somebody else’s actions. My group has also shown in several studies that human mirror neuron areas are critical to imitation. There is also evidence that the activation of this neural system is fairly automatic, thus suggesting that it may by-pass conscious mediation.

I interpret this as follows. You see someone do something, like throw a frisbee. Within your own brain, a bunch of neurons fire — no surprise there. The surprise is that the “read out” of those neurons is not “other guy throwing frisbee” — it’s I am throwing a frisbee.

Iacoboni believes this phenomenon has unhappy implications for people who imbibe violence through the media.

I’ll leave that last bit to him. What I’m wondering is what role mirror neurons play in bonding. I’m thinking, for instance, of the ritual dances of bonded pairs of birds, and human dancing, and military exercises based on people synchronizing their actions.

And to step off even further into the wild blue yonder: does this suggest that multiple brains can link up and synchronize into what is, for all intents and purposes, a larger “brain” — like parallel processing CPUs?

Have you ever seen a flock of hundreds of blackbirds pivot simultaneously mid-flight? They look like they are a single organism, like they are operating under the control of a single brain.

Maybe they are.

And (wilder! bluer!) is it also possible Iacobani has discovered the biological basis for the “one mind” long postulated by mystics?

(More on Iacobani’s work and its implications for empathy here and here.)

[tags] mirror neurons [/tags]

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