"Mirroring People" is a must-read for anyone interested in up-and-coming topics in neuroscience, or just as a cursory pick for a brain book. It is an extremely easy read; any medical jargon or procedures mentioned are clearly explained even for those without any prior knowledge of the subject. A big attraction of this book is that it provides a biological basis for, as the subtitle suggests, "How We Connect with Others."
Marco Iacoboni presents mirror neurons in the first chapter as the specialized brain cells in an area of the brain called the premotor cortex, which specializes in the planning and execution of actions. While conducting an experiment in which researchers were recording single neuron readings from monkeys, one researcher found that the neurons were firing (a term used when a neuron is being activated) when said researcher was performing an action the monkey was familiar with. One story has it that the researcher had ice cream and was in the physical act of bringing it to his mouth to take a bite when the neurons in the premotor cortex began firing. While this particular story is eventually debunked, that these cells were activated not only when the monkey was anticipating the action but when it saw others performing provided neuroscientists with an entire new area to study.
After describing what these mirror cells are, Iacoboni does a beautiful job of pinpointing experiments that naturally progress from this simple observation to the broad implications mirror cells have. The basis of mirror cells is imitation. One experiment Iacoboni cited involved two children that were placed in a room that was chock full of objects, two of each. What the experimenters found was that when one child but put on a cowboy hat, the other one would put the other cowboy hat on. When one played with a particular toy, the other soon followed. This is the basis for his conclusion: imitation, thus mirror cells, is a critical learning tool that people need to interact with others.
Iacoboni cleverly sets this supposition against studies done with autistic children, where he makes the hypothesis that because autistic children are characterized by the inability to interact with others they must be deficient in mirror cells or mirror cell activity. Indeed, in some of his imaging techniques he finds that the areas of the brain that are normally associated with mirror neurons fire substantially lower than normal children given the proper stimuli. Since imitation is a key component of mirror cells and learning, the hypothesis was also made that imitation would help stimulate autistic children and act as a sort of therapy. Indeed, when this was put into practice, caregivers found that by imitating the stereotypically redundant actions of autistics, they were able to get their attention and interact and connect with the autistic children better.
The turning point in the book is when the author describes how mirror cells aid in self-recognition in the mirror. Around the age of two is when children begin to recognize that they are looking at themselves in the mirror as opposed to another playmate. This is the point where the implications for mirror cells become meaningful to how adults function and utilize these neurons.
One block of experiments demonstrated that being exposed to media violence increased aggressiveness and violent behavior. While this is a seemingly simple statement whether you agree with it or not, Iacoboni is insightful to enough to point out that this actually challenges our own perception of free will. If something as simple as watching violent movies and playing violent videogames affects our behavior, doesn't that mean we aren't completely in control of our actions (even though we're ultimately responsible for them)? This is still a hot topic for debate, but there is strong empirical evidence that the correlation exists.
Iacoboni ends by discussing how mirror neurons contribute to our political footholds and the larger cultural associations we make. By thoroughly going through experiments that set up the conclusions and assumptions made on this topic, Iacoboni presents a fascinating look at a new world going on twenty-years-old. Already, bold statements have been made, and if the author is only partially correct then the floodgates have only just been opened on the topic.
Overall, the book was worth every second of reading; it illuminated subjects that were previously completely foreign to me. It also put into words and science things I've noticed but never queried. I believe that there will be a lot more to come in this field, and hope that Marco Iacoboni is there to lead the way again.
The only thing I was left wanting at the end was more specific ways we can use the information presented. The mention of helping the autistic patients was a great revelation, but there is a lot more this field has to offer that I don't think was completely covered. Again, this is a new field and there will be ways that the knowledge is used that will be ingenious, but just a little more insight would have been a great addition.
I think one of the greatest reasons this book is a success and a great read is that it has been a labor of love for our author, and the reader knows it doesn't stop with the last word; Iacoboni intends on following through with this research and has high hopes for it:
"I believe we are at a point at which findings from neuroscience can significantly influence and change our society and our understanding of ourselves. It is high time we consider this option seriously."