Mirror Neurons and Empathy

Mirrors, both in a physical and metaphorical sense, have featured prominently in our inter-species experiments. In the 1970’s, an actual mirror was used in measurements of self-awareness which became known as the mirror self recognition (MSR) test. It was shown that some primates were able to recognise their own reflection as proven by noting whether the animal was able to detect a spot marked with odourless dye. Then in the 1990’s, a monkey brain wired up in a region associated with planning and carrying out movements, showed activity when simply observing a researcher that entered the room licking an ice cream cone. This became the accidental origins of the mirror neuron system (MNS). A functional match between a motor response and a perceptual one.

MSR has again been topical. Recently published research from Kyoto University (May 4, 2011) has extended the level of self-awareness by demonstrating that chimpanzees are also capable of the perception of self-agency. This shows that chimpanzees and humans share “the fundamental cognitive processes underlying the sense of being an independent agent”. Meanwhile mirror neuron studies record indirect behavioral evidence of functioning MNS early in the life of primates. Infant chimpanzees show imitation behavior similar to humans.

The intersection of MSR, self-agency and MSN begins to further challenge the lines of demarcation between humans and some of our closest genetic neighbours. The former give more cause to question whether we are the only species that can claim higher levels of consciousness. MSN is thought critical in the ability to imitate and form a theory of mind (TOM). Factors considered relevant in our capacity to learn, emphasise and build social relationships. Note too, that a TOM has a role to play not just in interacting with others, but in our own self-awareness – and the awareness of that awareness.

Reverting back to our mirror test, not only do I see my reflection as being that of my own body, but I am also aware of myself seeing that reflection, and I am aware of that awareness – and so forth. Maybe the chimpanzee can too?

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