Mirror neurons

I don’t think we’ve ever witnessed before such depths of human tragedy as the horror caused by super typhoon Yolanda.

Perhaps it was because so many lives were snuffed out through one of the most terrifying ways, by drowning—and their bloated, decomposed corpses would be left for days where they settled after the waters receded, or lined up along streets to be collected many days later, never mind Mar Roxas’ debate with a foreign correspondent that what he saw were “not the same bodies.”

Perhaps it was because of the appalling number of victims, never mind President Aquino’s arguing with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that a police general’s estimate of 10,000 dead was just due to his “emotional trauma”. More than a week after Yolanda hit, bodies were still being retrieved beneath the rubble or as they were washed ashore.

Media’s vivid coverage of human suffering undoubtedly prodded the outpouring of help for Yolanda’s victims, from here and the world: orphaned little girls shivering in the cold of flood waters, stunned mothers looking for the bodies of their husbands, and children on the roadside begging for water.

Again, our species’ indomitable spirit shines through, that in the midst of tragedy, we assert what is noble in our humanity, our capacity to feel the pain of our fellowmen as they do, and to reach out to help them.

Who has a deficiency in mirror neurons? Boy, left crying as he watches Yolanda victims; right, Aquino, interviewed by CNN’s Amanpour.

Who has a deficiency in mirror neurons? Boy, left crying as he watches Yolanda victims; right, Aquino, interviewed by CNN’s Amanpour.

But why do we feel the pain of others? Why did a little boy in a video that had become viral, cry profusely as he watched a TV broadcast of horrified people after the storm surge in Tacloban, as if he was feeling their terror? To be frank, I was surprised myself at the tug in my chest and at my eyes getting moist when I watched a grown man bawl through a satellite phone lent to him by CNN’s Anderson Cooper when he got to reach his mother, and cry like a boy in Visayan, “Mama, why did this happen to me?”

Spark of the Divine

Maybe we do have a spark of the Divine in our hearts, and that, as that old hippie graffiti claims, “God is Love,” and what makes us noble is that we feel for others as if we were all brothers and sisters in one big family on earth.

There are, however, other explanations, but which I would emphasize do not diminish at all our noble capacity for empathy, just as the Darwinian truth that we are hard-wired to reproduce our genes does not lessen the wonder —and excitement—of romantic love.

The most exciting and interesting scientific finding why we feel what others do is the discovery of so-called “mirror neurons” in our brains. (Brain neurons are the microscopic basic stuff that creates our “minds”).

Italian scientists in 1992 first observed the phenomenon in the brains of macaque monkeys. Certain groups of neurons in certain parts of one monkey’s brain fired when he performed a particular action, grabbing a peanut from a container, for instance.

What was surprising was that another monkey watching the first had certain neurons in the corresponding part of his brain also firing. (If you have to ask, the scientists used electrodes planted in the monkeys’ brains). That is, the observing monkey had a kind of brain neurons that were “mirroring” the firing of the other’s neurons.

While initially ignored, neuroscientists would later on rush to study the phenomenon not only among macaque monkeys but also, and more so, on humans, especially as new technology such as functional magnetic resonance imagine (fMRI) has allowed them to peer into human brain activity without having to invasively plant electrodes into their skulls.

Scientific studies have been piling up confirming the existence of such “mirror neurons” in humans and in most other mammals: neurons in one person fire to mirror those in another person undergoing a particular emotion. Thus, that person feels roughly what the other person feels. The exact location of the mirror neurons in the brain has even been pinpointed, at the inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe.

Single most important story

Renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran called the discovery of mirror neurons one of the “single most important unpublicized stories of the decade.”

Why? Because it unearths the physical basis of such a fuzzy idea as Divinely given “brother love” and explains why we sympathize with others’ suffering.

That is, we feel for others not because or not just because we are devoted Christians following the teaching of Christ, or because our minds have been formed by years of education and acculturation that we embrace as our own the humanity’s noble values that evolved over centuries of civilization.

The mirror-neuron theory says that to some extent—and neuroscientists are still inconclusive exactly to what extent—we have empathy, we feel others’ pain as ours, because evolution has created in our brains certain neurons which fire in the same way certain neurons fire in the brain of somebody we observe as being in pain, or in other emotions, creating what we feel as empathy.

That is, the pain (as well as other emotions) of another person we see as suffering is replicated to some extent in our own brains. It is not even rare: it is the reason we pay to watch movies, and the explanation why so many young people can even feel vampires’ and wizards’ out-of-this-world sufferings and yearnings.

Why has Homo sapiens evolved such mirror neurons? Evolutionary scientists speculate that without the nearly “automatic” cooperation made possible by mirror neurons in the brains of our ancestors, humans with their small physique would have been easily driven to extinction by bigger predators.

The discovery of mirror neurons has been revolutionary, claiming to explain such centuries-old puzzles as why we have a “theory of mind” (i.e., our certainty that others have minds just like ours and are not automatons) and significantly, why one man can be a mass murderer when another can’t even slit a chicken’s neck for dinner.

Deficiency of mirror neurons

The simplistic answer to the latter puzzle—although data are still incomplete—is that for some still-unknown reason, there are humans who have a deficiency of mirror neurons, or have defective or “broken” mirror neurons so that they can’t really feel the pain of others, the extreme case being a sadistic murderer.

What is intriguing is that scientists are now scrambling—because of the disease’s reported increasing incidence—to investigate the hypothesis most articulately proposed by University of California in Los Angeles neuroscientist Marco Iacobini: that “malfunctioning mirror neurons are likely responsible for the lack of empathy and theory of mind found in severely autistic people.”

The theory is that autism is simply the extreme case of malfunctioning mirror neurons. A milder form of that would be the lack of empathy for others.

If Iacoboni’s thesis is proven right though, it could explain columnist Francisco Tatad’s depiction (in his Nov. 15 column) of President Aquino in his interview with CNN’s Amanpour a few days after Yolanda struck:

“Aquino looked completely detached, uninvolved, unfeeling, unaffected by the incredible human tragedy that has covered the world with grief and pain.”

If you think Mr. Tatad is just biased against Aquino, read the following message emailed to me by a Japanese-American college student in California whom I don’t know from Adam, but who just had to tell me what he thought of the President’s CNN interview:

“When I saw Pres. Aquino on TV, he seems rather ‘above the people’ and annoyed at others’ incompetence, and annoyed that people should bother him about grave human suffering.”