End wall of reception room covered in mirrors.

Mirror Neurons

Command neurons...control voluntary movements...Amazingly, a subset of these neurons had an additional peculiar property. The neuron fired not only (say) when the monkey reached for a peanut but also when it watched another monkey reach for a peanut!

V S Ramachandran (2007)

[Two reasons are most likely for] mirror neurons [having] such a wide impact on cognitive disciplines... The first is that their discovery put the problem of how we understand others at the forefront of neuroscience. The second is that, by showing that mirror neurons were basically motor neurons, they suggested a rather unexpected solution to this problem: the motor system is involved in understanding the actions and intentions of others.

P F Ferrari and G Rizzolatti (2014)

Our nervous system’s cells are busy organising our sensations into perceptions, and then into thoughts, and then on occasion into actions; a long pathway from the external world through the myriad complications of our central nervous systems. Mirror neurons seem to jump over this bureaucracy, reflecting what is external directly into our actions. This allows the young of a species to copy adults essentially without participating mentally in the process themselves. Ramachandran then speculates that this facility let us form the idea of an ‘other’: the location given to the feelings generated by mirror neurons. Furthermore he wonders could it be that our notion of self came by analogy from the concept of other. And so he propounds the counter-intuitive suggestion that consciousness of self only arises after sympathy with others has become possible.


The Ramachandran quote is from his Edge lecture available at: https://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran07/ramachandran07_index.html. Giacomo Rizzolatti led a group of researchers in the 80s and 90s at Parma University who showed the properties of these cells. The quote above is from the overview paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 369 entitled Mirror neuron research: the past and the future, leading a theme issue, Mirror neurons: fundamental discoveries, theoretical perspectives and clinical implications. These neurons have been identified in many animal and bird species including humans. The photograph was taken in the reception room of the Narenjestan Palace in Shiraz, Iran. The room, as is customary in that arid climate, is open on one side, the other walls and ceiling being completely covered by mirrors - from large to tiny. Such mirror work was a major feature of nineteenth century Qajar architecture.


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