Friday, October 2, 2009

Monkey see...

Major dork-out warning. Read on if you want to get your nerd on...

When I registered for physiology this semester I thought to myself, "How much could have changed from when I took it during my undergrad days?". BTW, that was in the late 90s. The answer is, of course, LOTS. Some of the things that happen within the human body remain largely a mystery with new discoveries being made all the time. Naturally, there's plenty that I didn't learn back in the day.

During the neurological unit, the professor presented a short video about mirror neurons which was especially interesting for those of us in the class who play sports or dance. The basic idea is that the more athletic ability you have, the more you enjoy watching sports and the more you emotionally invested you get. Watching the sporting activity or dance produces the same neurological response as if you were doing those actions yourself.

Mirror neurons are located in the premotor cortex of the inferior parietal lobe of the brain. Recall that the parietal lobe plays a role in coordinating the body's motions and integrating sensory information. The video presented a study with individuals doing certain simple physical tasks, such as opening closing one's hand. EEG data shows that the area where mirror neurons are located fired strongly. Then, the same subjects watched a video of the same task. EEG data showed the exact same area of the brain fired strongly again, leading researchers to conclude that, as far as this area of the brain is concerned, watching the activity is the same as doing it.

Of course, this finding has implications that reach into a great many fields. One such field is childhood development. Current research is looking into how infants learn and understand actions from simply watching them. If you think about it, this makes sense. I know that I've successfully gotten more than one baby to clap his or her hands after demonstrating how its done a few times.

The mirror system has also been linked to empathy, emotions and intentions (or goals). Studies have been done on autistic individuals that have showed that the mirror neurons do not fire as strongly in autistic individuals, either when they are performing the task or watching it. They are able to imitate the action, but don't understand why they're doing it. Anatomically, these individuals have thinner regions of mirror neurons, leading researchers to suggest that perhaps autism is caused by a lack of mirror neurons, thereby leading to deficits in social skills, emotions, empathy and understanding the goal of various actions.

Basically, what all this means for me is that because I am a fairly athletic individual, I understand the goals of sports and dance, and therefore become more emotionally invested. My mirror neuron system is responsible for this link between action and emotion. This is why I get so mushy gushy when I watch ballet or why I find certain sports (OK, all sports) so interesting and entertaining. Chances are, if you played sports at some point or possess a fair amount of athletic ability, you like watching other people play sports, too. Suddenly, it all makes sense. Fascinating.

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