The Italian scientist Giacamo Rizzolati was the first to observe a special set of neurons in macaque monkey brains, an observation neuroscientist Vilayannur Ramachandran hails as of revolutionary implication to humanity. When a monkey performs an action these neurons show activity . But when the same monkey watches another of his tribe do the same action, the neuronal activity mentioned above is repeated. This quality led to these neurons being termed 'mirror neurons'.
Further research revealed the fact that the human brain was well-endowed with mirror neurons. The mirror neuron system in the human brain seems to be more highly developed, sophisticated and specialised. They possess the capacity not merely to understand and respond to the motor actions of others but also to their intentions, sensations, behaviour and emotions.The current knowledge of mirror neuron system is skeletal but sufficient to prove that they play a pivotal role in organising our ersonal and social life.
Scientists studying the mirror neuron system point out a marked difference. In the monkeys, individual neurons fire as specific motor actions are performed or witnessed. In human beings, on the other hand, scientists have not been able to pinpoint single neurons but mark out an area in the brain which witnesses activity. Scientists now aim to go beyond mapping out motor neuron activity to understand how mirror neuron system acts when human beings have or percieve emotions or tactile or olfactory sensations etc. They are also researching into whether the system responds only to to perceived emotions or also to intentions of others. It as also to be found as to whether mirror neurons are restricted to a single specific area of the brain or whether their presence is diffused throught the entire cortex.
Vittorio Gallese who was Rizzollati's colleague at the University of Parma when this discovery was made says it is now 'clear that mirror neurons are one key to understanding how human beings survive and thrive in a complex social world. This neural mechanism is involuntary and automatic, with it we don't have to think about what other people are doing or feeling, we simply know. It seems we are wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different. At the root, as humans we identify the person we are facing as someone like ourselves'.
That brain structure is innate and that we are born with these special cells that allow us to connect with other people is vehemently opposed by those who believe that everything about the brain including the tuning of individual neurons is shaped by experience. They regard mirror neurons as a 21st century scientific myth. The imaging studies, they say do not measure electrical activity in single neurons but only the oxygen suply to large areas of the brain. From this incomplete record we cannot even assumea the existence of mirror neurons, goes their argument. They deny that mirror neurons constitute the fundamental neural basis of human social cognition.
But Ramachandran asserts mirror neurons will dissolve the barrier between 'self vs others'. Will he be proved right or will mirror neurons become another mirage?