The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Mirror Neurons

The Italian neurologist Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered ("Action Recognition in the Premotor Cortex", 1996) that the brain of primates uses "mirror" neurons to represent what others are doing. De facto, my brain contains a representation of what someone else is doing, and that representation helps me "understand" what the other person is doing, for example her intention and her emotions. We effortlessly understand the intention and emotion of others not because we carry out complex reasoning procedures about their actions but because their intentions and emotions are physically reproduced inside our own brain. In fact, a brain only needs to see the beginning of an action by another person in order to guess the intention of it: based on the context, the mirror neurons instantly reproduce the brain state of the other person and therefore help to understand what the other person is trying to do and what will happen next. These mirror neurons are widespread in the cortex of primates (not only of humans). These mirror neurons fire both when the action is performed and when the action is observed in other individuals. Ramachandran ("Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning", 2000) subsequently speculated that mirror neurons may be crucial in learning and understanding language.

Because mirror neurons fire not only when an action if performed but also when observing someone else performing that action, they allow us to understand the intentions of someone else's action and to empathize. They de facto simulate what others are doing. Ramachandran credits mirror neurons with shifting the main driver of human evolution from the genome to culture. As culture became more and more important, evolution started selecting the brains that had the best mirror neurons.

Similarly, the human brain has "canonical" neurons that fire both when we perform an action on an object and when we simply see that object. For example, some canonical neurons fire both when we grasp and object and when we see that object (in other words, they seem to fire in response to the property of "graspability", regardless of whether we actually grasp the object or not).

The brain is prewired for understanding motives and for deceit. Babies understand (or at least try to guess) the motives of the people around them way before they can understand the language. When someone asks "do you know the time", we expect the answer to be either "no" or the current time. The answer "yes" is a joke. If you ask for the directions to the library at a time when the library is closed, you are likely to be told "It is closed" and not how to get there. If you pull out your camera in a museum where photography is not allowed, a security guard is likely to tell you "No photos". A lot of what we do in society is driven by our understanding of other people's motives. It is a fundamental feature of the human brain that we continuously build theories of other minds.

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